Bike. Camp. Lobby.

Out­door in­dus­try wields new­found power – try­ing to per­suade gov­ern­ment

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Ja­son Blevins

As the heavy­weight Out­door Re­tailer trade shows pack for a new base camp in Colorado, the out­door in­dus­try is wield­ing a new­found power.

Last month, as the trade show’s at­ten­dees wrapped their fi­nal stand in Salt Lake City af­ter 20 years, thou­sands marched sup­port­ing pub­lic lands. Utah’s po­si­tion on those lands — urg­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to down­size na­tional mon­u­ments such as Bears Ears and Grand Stair­caseescalante — trig­gered the de­par­ture of Out­door Re­tailer. Out­door Re­tailer ar­rives in Den­ver in Jan­uary, the first of five bian­nual gath­er­ings that will es­tab­lish Colorado as the com­mand post for all things out­door re­cre­ation.

Fa­vor­ing pub­lic lands is an easy mo­ti­va­tor. Ev­ery­one un­der the out­door-re­cre­ation tent — a widely di­verse lot in­clud­ing sports­men, pad­dlers, campers, bik­ers, skiers, hik­ers, con­ser­va­tion­ists, re­tail­ers, gear mak­ers and mo­tor­ized users — can get be­hind a fight to de­fend ac­cess to well-pro­tected and am­ply funded na­tional forests, mon­u­ments and parks.

The chal­lenge is cap­tur­ing the grow­ing po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and so­cial clout, and main­tain­ing that mo­men­tum as the in­dus­try emerges as a force for change be­yond ac­cess and land pro­tec­tion.

“It’s po­lit­i­cally safe and risk­free for the out­door in­dus­try to back pub­lic-lands pro­tec­tion. But can they make the pivot to cli­mate, which is the over­reach­ing is­sue and far more im­por­tant?” said Au­den Schendler, the cli­mate ac­tivist who di­rects Aspen Ski­ing Co.’s in­dus­try-lead­ing sus­tain­abil­ity ef­forts. “I don’t think it’s cer­tain they will be able to do that. As I’ve said be­fore, if you don’t solve cli­mate, you can kiss your pub­lic lands goodbye.”

The in­dus­try is mak­ing the ef­fort. More than 100 Colorado out­door com­pa­nies — per­haps em­bold­ened by win­ning Out­door Re­tailer — have en­listed in an ef­fort to thwart drilling in the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge.

“The Colorado busi­nesses signed onto this let­ter urge you to hear our busi­ness voices, an eco­nomic pow­er­house in our state es­ti­mated in the bil­lions, and not al­low any fos­sil fuel devel­op­ment in the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge,” reads the mis­sive sent two weeks ago to Colorado’s del­e­ga­tion in Wash­ing­ton.

A con­sor­tium of Colorado out­door ath­letes is lob­by­ing Colorado lead­ers to fight the pro­posed ex­pan­sion of the West Elk Mine, where owner Arch Coal hopes to dig up an es­ti­mated 17.6 mil­lion tons of coal in the Gun­ni­son Na­tional For­est. The plan would add 48 meth­ane vent­ing wells to the mine that al­ready ranks as the state’s largest source of meth­ane pol­lu­tion.

“This is a ripoff to tax­pay­ers who own that meth­ane and a catas­tro­phe for our cli­mate. Coal mines in many coun­tries col­lect meth­ane and use it to pro­duce en­ergy, but due to lax fed­eral laws, loop­holes and sub­si­dies that fa­vor the coal in­dus­try, U.S. coal mines op­er­at­ing on pub­lic lands can vent meth­ane with no penalty,” reads the July let­ter from ath­letes such as Chris Daven­port, Gretchen Bleiler, Jake Black, Simi Hamil­ton, Arielle Gold and Eric Larsen.

As Colorado es­tab­lishes it­self as the out­door busi­ness epi­cen­ter, lo­cal in­dus­try lead­ers are push­ing for the state to be­come a cra­dle of po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy.

“The out­door in­dus­try over­all is wak­ing up to their po­lit­i­cal voice and plat­form. This is about so much more than just cli­mate, or pub­lic lands. It’s a far deeper tes­ti­mo­nial to state-level coali­tions co­a­lesc­ing around one of the few re­main­ing bi­par­ti­san economies in the coun­try,” said Luis Ben­itez, the boss of the Colorado Out­door Re­cre­ation In­dus­try Of­fice who helped land Out­door Re­tailer.

But with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke plow­ing ahead with a re­view of na­tional mon­u­ments that could re­sult in down­siz­ing swaths of fed­er­ally pro­tected open spa­ces, the out­door in­dus­try is not about to ease up on the fight for pub­lic lands — the lifeblood of out­door re­cre­ation, in­spir­ing a life­style that prods Amer­i­cans to buy more gear that is es­sen­tially re­searched and de­vel­oped on those wild­lands.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ap­proach to­ward pub­lic lands is “an ex­is­ten­tial threat,” said Peter Met­calf, the founder of Utah’s Black Di­a­mond Equip­ment who led the po­lit­i­cally charged ex­o­dus of Out­door Re­tailer from his home state.

“The re­al­ity of that threat has united all fac­tions and all tribes,” said Met­calf, point­ing to mil­lions of pub­lic com­ments sup­port­ing pub­lic lands spurred by out­door com­pa­nies such as Patag­o­nia and the 6.3 mil­lion-mem­ber REI co-op. “That’s where we go from here. We are continuing to build the var­i­ous coali­tions and com­mu­ni­cate to our elected of­fi­cials — Repub­li­cans and Democrats alike — that Amer­i­cans re­ally care about well-stew­arded, well-pro­tected, prop­erly zoned and prop­erly funded pub­lic lands.”

As the fed­eral gov­ern­ment backs away from lead­er­ship on cli­mate and pro­tect­ing open spa­ces for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, com­pa­nies are fill­ing the void. Patag­o­nia is the nat­u­ral leader, a com­pany that has long been the vig­i­lant guardian of en­vi­ron­men­tal ethics in re­tail, with cam­paigns stir­ring sup­port for cli­mate-change leg­is­la­tion, tear­ing down dams and wild sal­mon in ad­di­tion to its sus­tain­able sourc­ing and la­bor strate­gies. But more com­pa­nies are fol­low­ing Patag­o­nia’s mon­key-wrench­ing path.

“Where a lack of lead­er­ship ex­ists, there are a num­ber of peo­ple in the pri­vate sec­tor who are will­ing to step for­ward,” said Penn Ne­whard, whose Back­bone Me­dia in Car­bon­dale rep­re­sents dozens of out­door brands that are forg­ing the new pro­gres­sive out­door econ­omy ethos. “These lead­ers are not only con­vinced of the gen­er­a­tional threat of cli­mate, but the long-term sus­tain­able eco­nomic value in re­cre­ation and pub­lic lands.”

It wasn’t long ago that the out­door in­dus­try tugged on emo­tions when pick­ing its fights. Sup­port for na­tional parks or clean wa­ter sprang from im­ages of camp­fires, wa­ter­falls and lonely hikes. Today, the in­dus­try’s callto-arms is much more cal­cu­lated, with daz­zling so­cial me­dia move­ments that cer­tainly in­clude those in­spi­ra­tional land­scapes and vis­tas but are firmly an­chored in eco­nom­ics.

Boul­der’s Out­door In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion shows that the broad out­door in­dus­try ac­counts for $887 bil­lion in an­nual con­sumer spend­ing and sup­ports 7.6 mil­lion jobs, gen­er­at­ing al­most $125 bil­lion in fed­eral, state and lo­cal taxes.

The Bureau of Eco­nomic Anal­y­sis this year will com­pile the out­door re­cre­ation in­dus­try’s con­tri­bu­tions to the na­tion’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct, which will clearly out­line the eco­nomic en­gine be­hind out­door re­cre­ation. The re­sults of that anal­y­sis will fuel the po­lit­i­cal ma­chine rum­bling be­hind out­door play.

“Any hope of driv­ing real change in pol­i­tics, es­pe­cially at the fed­eral level, re­lies on brands com­ing to­gether to flex their col­lec­tive eco­nomic mus­cles,” said Mike Lewis, Boul­der-based Zeal Op­tics’ head of brand ac­ti­va­tion and dig­i­tal strat­egy, a po­si­tion that, in it­self, re­veals the dis­cern­ing di­rec­tion of today’s pro­gres­sive out­door brands. “Sim­ply play­ing to peo­ple’s emo­tions doesn’t work on our larger scale.”

Rick Bowmer, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Vanessa Castag­noli, who works at Tentsile, shows Eric Han­son the St­ingray tree tent at the com­pany’s dis­play dur­ing last month’s Out­door Re­tailer show in Salt Lake City. The show is leav­ing Utah af­ter two decades be­cause of the state’s pub­lic-land pol­icy. Its new home will be Colorado.

De­seret News file

In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke rides a horse in May at the new Bears Ears Na­tional Mon­u­ment in Utah. A month later, he rec­om­mended that it be re­duced in size and said Congress should de­cide how se­lected ar­eas are man­aged.

Jes­sica Matthews, for The Wash­ing­ton Post

A po­lar bear goes for a stroll in the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge. More than 100 Colorado out­door com­pa­nies have joined in an ef­fort to thwart drilling in the Alaska refuge.

Fran­cisco Kjolseth, The Salt Lake Tri­bune

Char­lie Boas, an ex­hibitor for Utah-based Blue Ice North Amer­ica, talks about a lightweight har­ness at last month’s Out­door Re­tailer trade show in Salt Lake City. The har­ness, called the chou­cas light, is the light­est one that a skier can wear while still wear­ing skis. Boas said he is not happy that the Out­door Re­tailer trade show is mov­ing to Colorado.

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