Patagonia’s Fight for Public Lands

The New York Times

In April, 79-year-old Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia Inc., stood up in front of 500 hardcore hunters in downtown Boise, Idaho, and told a story about his daughter accidentally hitting a deer with her car on prom night. As a lifelong hunter, Chouinard had repeatedly impressed upon her since a young age that wasting meat was a grave sin, so she took it upon herself to frantically drag the deer carcass into her car for butchering.


Never mind that she was in her outfit for the evening—“dressed to the nines,” as Chouinard described it—and never mind that scavenging roadkill is illegal in California, where they lived. So when the cops showed up, the patrolman had to insist to her, “Ma’am, just leave that deer alone, you can’t take it with you,” says Chouinard, laughing and drawing a huge applause from the crowd.

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He told this story, among others, at Backcountry Hunters & Anglers’ annual Rendezvous, a three-day meeting for the conservation group, which has focused much of its efforts on protecting wild spaces.

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Chouinard was on hand to throw his celebrity behind a growing partnership between the hunting and outdoor-recreation communities—two groups of people that, historically, haven’t exactly gotten along.

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But with a shared concern for public lands over issues of poor management, lost protections, and potential sell-offs, the two groups had recently teamed up to push back. For Patagonia, it’s just another front in a battle with the Trump administration, which includes a lawsuit against the Interior Department for shrinking two national monuments in Utah. But in many ways, this partnership was one of the more unlikely acts for the company, considering that much of its consumer base is made up of left-leaning activists who buy brands based on their ethics. Yet teaming up with groups like BHA and hunting brands like the performance-apparel maker First Lite—which, much like Patagonia, has conservation embedded in its DNA—is a testament to how serious the company is. We sat down with Chouinard and First Lite co-founder Kenton Carruth in Boise to discuss the unexpected merger.

Are you ever worried about alienating certain supporters by aligning with hunters?

Yvon Chouinard: Well, there’s wackos on both sides. I mean, we get attacked by animal-rights activists all the time for using leather, for using wool, for using down. And then you’ve got slob hunters everywhere. But you know, I’ve been a hunter all my life. I own a bunch of guns, and they’re not for protection, let me tell you.

So the risk is worth it?

YC: Since I was 6 years old, I’ve been on public lands. When I was a kid in the San Fernando Valley, I ended up down at the L.A. River, digging frogs and catching crawdads. My first fishing trip, I bought a bamboo pole and put a line on the end of it with a worm. It was all public lands. It drives me crazy that now, in Jackson Hole, a kid can’t fish the river from the bank. You have to float it. The homeowners own it to the middle of the river. How can a kid grab a pole and a can of worms and learn to fish anymore? You can’t. Everything is privatized.

Kenton, why take the risk with First Lite in fighting certain policies from this administration? Hunters generally lean conservative.

Kenton Carruth: Probably every happy memory I have from the time I was a little kid is associated with public lands, riding a mountain bike, fishing, or backcountry skiing. And if you lose those places, then all of a sudden it becomes some serfdom, where you’ve got a king who owns all the deer and elk. It’s a huge resource that we need to protect, however we can. There are people and forces out there that don’t want hunters and hikers and all these user groups to get together and talk. They want to keep everybody separate, because then it allows them to push their agenda.

By forces, you mean oil and gas interests?

KC: Yes. Oil and gas, and people who really want to acquire these lands for financial gain. Nothing makes them happier than when hunters and hikers don’t get along with each other, because once you fragment them, then you fragment the base of the whole movement.

Why isn’t there more cooperation?

YC: You need a Pearl Harbor. We never would have gotten into World War II if it hadn’t been for that. It had to be right there on American soil.

But it seems pretty clear that this is a Pearl Harbor moment with this administration.

YC: Yeah, it is. It’s an evil enemy. I call it evil because, these people in the administration, they all know global warming is happening. Nobody is dumb enough to actually not know. But they’re purposely not doing anything about it for the sake of making more money. And when you’re doing something that you know is wrong and evil, then you’re evil. Pretty simple.

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Do you ever worry about getting too political?

YC: I don’t want to be involved in politics, but somebody’s got to balance out the Koch brothers and the Mercer family. They’re working their asses off on the other side, so we gotta do something. I mean, I hate lawsuits. It’s just a lot of money to lawyers. But that’s the only thing this administration understands.

What about from the other side, Kenton? Hunters and anglers were fairly supportive of the appointment of Secretary Zinke to the Department of the Interior.

KC: It’s damage control at this point. The wishes of a very small percentage of the population are being pushed upon the rest of us, and Zinke is facilitating that. I don’t think, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, this is what you signed up for.

What do you mean?

KC: Special interests have an agenda, a very well-choreographed agenda. It’s get the land in state control, and as soon as the state runs out of money, it’ll sell the land off. That’s it. Republicans and hunters hear, “Oh, big government. We want to shrink the government.” And that’s fine, but this issue is unique. And it’s being fought by people who don’t have your best interest in mind. And that’s why we as hunters are sitting here with companies like Patagonia that maybe we didn’t always see eye to eye with in the past. I’ll tell you the interesting thing about hunting, too: It’s not very often that you find a true hunter who isn’t an environmentalist. It makes you an activist. It makes you have a passion.

YC: I don’t think there’s anyone in the administration who’s been outside, including Zinke. Zinke is all hat, no cattle. He’s no cowboy, I can tell you that.

Another commonality between hunters and outdoor enthusiasts is ethics around food. Patagonia has invested millions into Patagonia Provisions, the agricultural arm of the company. When did your food awareness become so prominent?

YC: Well, I’ve had food in the back of my mind for 50 years. When the United Nations says that we’re going to need 20 to 70 percent more food by 2050, that’s only a few years from now. Seventy percent more food! At the same time, we’re going to have 30 percent less topsoil. We’re not going to have any water either. You can look at this as a monster threat or an opportunity.

What’s the opportunity?

YC: Well, I’m focused on global warming, because that’s the big thing that’s hanging over the planet. There have been enough scientific studies that say if we just change the way we do agriculture, we could capture all the carbon we’re emitting. We could still drive our gas hogs and stuff. So I’m convinced that our only hope is capturing carbon through agriculture.

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Is this why you’re so excited about the food side of Patagonia?
YC: Of course. Like right now, we use only organically grown cotton. But that doesn’t do the world any good. All it does is cause less harm. We should be growing food on those fields instead of making torn-up jeans. With Provisions, every ingredient is going to have to be grown regeneratively and organically. Regenerative builds topsoil and captures carbon. It’s a no-till process. And so we’re creating a new certification that is “regenerative organic.” It solves a lot of problems. It’s basically a matter of going back and working with nature instead of working against it. The whole of life on Earth is dependent on six inches of topsoil. That’s it. That’s what makes this planet unique. And we’re losing that topsoil like crazy.

So is Patagonia becoming a food company?

YC: Well, if you ask me why I’m in business, I’m in business to save the planet. It may sound corny, but that’s the reason we’re here.

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