The Outdoor Industry and Republicans Are Going to War Over America’s National Parks. Here’s What You Need to Know.
On February 16, Gary Herbert, the governor of Utah, received an urgent phone call from four outdoor industry titans: the Outdoor Industry Association, which represents over 1,200 outdoor businesses in the U.S.; Outdoor Retailer, the world’s largest outdoor industry trade show; and the outdoor brands Patagonia and The North Face. The call came amid national outrage on recently proposed legislation sponsored by Herbert and the Republican congressional majority that aims to transfer millions of acres of federally owned land into state hands, and to rescind the recent designation of Bears Ears National Monument — acts that many, including over 100 leading outdoor company executives, view as thinly veiled attacks on Americans’ ability to freely access wild places.
Their message to Governor Herbert: Revoke your support of this legislation and stand up for the interests of the outdoor industry — a keystone of Utah’s economy — or we’re walking away.
The negotiations failed. And now, Outdoor Retailer, which has been held twice a year in Salt Lake City for nearly two decades and added over $45 million annually to Utah’s economy, is looking for a new home.
“It is clear that the governor indeed has a different perspective on the protections of public lands from that of our members and the majority of Western state voters, both Republicans and Democrats,” said the Outdoor Industry Association in a statement. “That’s bad for our American heritage, and it’s bad for our businesses. We are therefore continuing our search for a new home as soon as possible.”
Herbert’s spokesperson, Paul Edwards, called the decision “offensive” and said that it “reflects a gross ingratitude.” Ten days prior to the decision, Herbert wrote an impassioned op-ed in the Salt Lake City Tribune declaring his love for Utah’s public land and defending his stance on the legislation: “I cannot ignore the challenges Utah sometimes faces due to federal practices that too often ignore meaningful local input. Policies change from administration to administration, creating inconsistent federal lands management practices. There are instances where federal inattention to looters, invasive species and pests has harmed these precious lands.”
The decision to relocate Outdoor Retailer is an unprecedented display of political power by the outdoor industry, and reflective of its rapidly growing influence on the greater U.S. economy. In 2012, the Outdoor Industry Association claimed that the U.S. outdoor industry — including outdoor gear sales, as well as travel-related spending — employed 6.1 million Americans and injected $646 billion into the U.S. economy. That’s more than the pharmaceutical and automobile industries combined.
Why, then, are certain lawmakers attempting to transfer federal land — the backbone of the outdoor recreation industry in America — over to the states? What’s the difference between public land and state land? What are outdoor brands saying about it? And most importantly, what does it mean for outdoorsmen and consumers of outdoor goods?
What Exactly Is the Proposed Legislation?
H.R. 621 (Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act): Introduced on January 24 by Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, H.R. 621 sought to direct the Department of the Interior to “offer for disposal by competitive sale” 3.3 million acres of federally owned land across the West. Citing a 1997 survey by the Clinton administration, Chaffetz reasoned that the land was essentially useless, as it wasn’t generating any revenue for American taxpayers. “The long overdue disposal of excess federal lands,” Chaffetz said, “will free up resources for the federal government while providing much-needed opportunities for economic development in struggling rural communities.” On February 2, Chaffetz announced on Instagram that he killed the bill due to overwhelming bipartisan uproar.
H.R. 622 (Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act): Introduced by Chaffetz alongside H.R. 621, H.R. 622 proposes stripping the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management of all law enforcement power, thereby placing all policing responsibility on the state. “Federal agencies do not enjoy the same level of trust and respect as local law enforcement that are deeply rooted in local communities,” Chaffetz said in introducing the bill. “This legislation will help deescalate conflicts between law enforcement and local residents while improving transparency and accountability.” The bill is still being considered by Congress.
Rescindment of Bears Ears National Monument: Weeks before he left office, President Obama designated 1.3 million acres of land in southern Utah a national monument, thereby protecting it (in the short-term, at least) from future development. Using an obscure federal law called the Antiquities Act, Obama created the monument without any congressional input (much like an executive order), and many Republicans, including Rob Bishop of Utah, aren’t happy about it. Bishop believes the land should instead be tapped for its resources, which is why he’s urging President Trump to rescind Obama’s designation. Trump thinks it’s a good idea.
What’s the Difference Between Public Land and State Land?
Public land includes all National Parks, National Forests, National Monuments, wildlife preserves and other designated wilderness areas that are owned and operated by federal agencies such as the National Park Service, National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The U.S. contains 640 million acres of public land — an area six times the size of California. This land belongs to all Americans, and most of it is vigorously protected from outside interests like resource extraction or commercial development.
State land, however, operates under an entirely different set of concerns, which those opposed to recent legislation find worrisome. “It’s managed for the benefit of the state,” said Adam Cramer, executive director of Outdoor Alliance. “And that means that if there’s a budget shortfall, or if there’s some other dynamic that the state has to take into account, what they have to do is manage those assets for the benefit of the state. In many cases, that results in selling or developing the lands. That’s not how it works on federal land.”
Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a nonprofit coalition of conservationists that lobbies on behalf of the hunting and fishing industry, says state lands are vulnerable to political and economic whims. “If you’re a Western governor, and your budget is based on [selling] sixty-dollar-per-barrel oil, and suddenly the price drops to forty dollars per barrel, you’re going to have a huge hole in your budget. You have two choices: go to your legislature and say, ‘Let’s raise taxes,’ or say ‘Let’s sell off some assets.’ And I think we all know what a Western legislator is more likely to do.”
In short: public land belongs to all Americans and is inherently shielded from corporate exploitation; state land is owned by the states, and can be sold to private interests.
What’s the History of Divesting Public Lands?
Several representatives from those who disagree with recent legislation said Republican-led efforts to divest federal land have gone on for decades. What’s different this time around, they said, is the sheer amount of traction this legislation is gaining in a Republican-majority Congress.
“What’s going on now is really just an amplification of what’s been going on for the past twenty years,” said Fosburgh. “It all goes back to Theodore Roosevelt’s time and the whole funding of the public lands system. He did that against massive opposition from vested interests who wanted to get their hands on those lands and wanted to make a profit off those lands. That vested opposition never went away. It goes underground for awhile and manifested itself in different ways. But in the eighties, we saw a much more systematic, much more sophisticated effort to undo the entire public lands network.”
Public land ownership, historically, has been marked by the old stalemate between Republicans and Democrats over whether to expand or minimize federal regulation. At the 2016 Republican National Convention, the party’s official platform stated: “Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.”
In June 2016, the House committee on Natural Resources voted to adopt H.R. 3650, which effectively fast-tracked the selling of National Forests for timber production; in 2015, Amendment SA 838 sought to do the same. Over the years, Nevada has sold off the vast majority of its land to private interests; Idaho has sold 41 percent of its land since it became a state in 1890. One of the most frequently cited examples of efforts to transfer public land is the Sagebrush Rebellion, a political uprising that peaked in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which fought federal efforts to expand public land in the West.
What Do Outdoor Brands Have to Say?
Before Outdoor Retailer decided to leave Utah, a handful of outdoor brands pulled out of the trade show in protest. Patagonia was the first. In a press release, Patagonia’s CEO Rose Marcario said of the Utah-led legislation, “Because of the hostile environment they have created and their blatant disregard for Bears Ears National Monument and other public lands, the backbone of our business, Patagonia will no longer attend the Outdoor Retailer show in Utah.”
Arc’teryx was the second. “Protecting public lands for future generations is a critical part of our brand values and we will use our influence in a way that is consistent with those values,” said Arc’teryx president Jon Hoerauf in a press release. Then, Peak Design, Polartec, Metolius, Power Practical, Kokopelli Packraft and Bedrock Sandals joined the boycott.
Not all companies agree on boycotting Outdoor Retailer, which will remain in Salt Lake City until its contract with Utah expires in 2018. REI and The North Face, two of the biggest forces in the industry, are urging companies to continue to attend OR.
“Leaving the OR show, as some have elected to do, is a clear message that we hope impacts the decision-making of those sitting in the Utah State Capitol,” said The North Face CEO Scott Baxter in an open letter. “However, abandoning OR would also create problems, including: throwing hurdles in the way of important work that NGOs and nonprofits are doing for the same causes we’re fighting for — saving our public lands from commercial development and devastating energy infrastructure; disabling the coalitions and partnerships that originate at OR and focus real time and money on pushing new standards in sustainability, materials development, manufacturing, and other initiatives that make us all better businesses and corporate citizens; and removing needed support for many of the smaller businesses that attend OR. While we agree that OR should leave Utah, we’re going to help the OIA and Outdoor Retailer search for a new, better location.”
“[Outdoor Retailer] is the one time and place that we come together across all elements of our industry,” said REI CEO Jerry Stritzke. “I believe it would be a mistake for us not to gather as an industry this July. Now, more than ever, we need to act together to advocate and find a common voice to protect our most important asset — our public lands. To be clear, REI is strongly in the camp of moving OR if Utah persists in attacking our public lands — the sooner the better.”
But the industry stands in unison against the sale of public lands on the whole. On January 17, REI coordinated a petition signed by over 100 leading outdoor executives, resolutely rejecting any effort to divest public land, and pledging their unwavering support of what they view as an American birthright.
He continued: “These public lands are a treasure. One of the great things of this country is that everybody owns them, and they’re available to everybody. They’re also an economic engine. When people come to hike or climb or ski or backpack, that’s truly renewable. They can do that again and again. Whereas when you put in one oil well, that’s it. That’s a one-and-done thing.”
Most brands reject the notion that this is a bipartisan issue, or even a strictly political one. “I don’t see it as a political statement,” said John Walbrecht, CEO of Black Diamond. “To us, having access to the outdoors is as altruistic as saying that you and I — if asked, could we do something to solve world hunger? Well, yeah, we would like to. How? I don’t know. But I think we’d all agree that it’s a worthy cause. Having access to the outdoors is American. It’s why we have National Parks; it’s why we have open land.”
What Does This Mean for You?
Expect to see more political activism from brands, which see themselves as pillars of the federal lands camp. “For the grassroots groups organizing and fighting these battles on the ground, having the support of our entire industry is crucial,” said Marcario. “It lets the activists know that they’re not alone in this fight and it lets the lawmakers know that a large industry will not stand for efforts to compromise or threaten our public lands. We need to make an impact at a high level as a united industry and we need to continue supporting local organizers on the frontlines in individual communities. We need to do both – because we’re up against some powerful interests eager to exploit even our most special places.”
More than ever in American history, consumers of outdoor goods and recreation are voting with their dollars. So spend wisely on that tent — because who knows where you’ll be able to pitch it in a few years.