The outdoor industry is beginning to lead the fight to protect America's public lands from being developed for gas and oil
Utah, a state rich in epic landscapes and national parks, is becoming ground zero for a fight between the $646bn outdoor industry and state lawmakers over public land management.
At a trade show for outdoor clothing and gear makers in Salt Lake City this week, two prominent figures from the industry called on their peers to move the semi-annual event out of the state unless Utah leaders stop supporting efforts by Republicans in Congress to transfer or sell federal land to states. Utah governor Gary Herbert was also called out for challenging a federal law that allowed President Obama to create the new, 1.4m-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah last month.
“Utah’s political leadership has unleashed an all-out assault against Utah’s protected public lands and Utah’s newest monument,” wrote Peter Metcalf, a long time Utah resident who founded climbing and ski gear maker Black Diamond, in an opinion piece published in the Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday to coincide with the start of the trade show. He noted that the trade show brings more than $40m to the city in direct spending each year, while the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) estimates the figure can reach $80m annually.
The next day, Yvon Chouinard, founder of clothier Patagonia, said in an open letter to Herbert that the company will no longer attend the trade show unless the governor “wants our business – and that he supports thousands of his constituents of all political persuasions who work in jobs supported by recreation on public lands”.
Metcalf and Chouinard’s criticism reflect growing concerns by their industry and outdoor enthusiasts, such as hunters, over what they see as public land grabs by state politicians who want to open up more of that land to oil and gas development. Such a move would limit or eliminate public access for recreation, disrupt wildlife and pose threats to air and water quality.
In 2014, a lengthy study found that if Utah took control of 31.2m acres of federal land in the state, for oil and gas development, it could generate around $50m in profit each year – but only if oil and gas prices were to remain at the 2014 rates. In Utah and other states, including Wyoming, in which some lawmakers are pushing for transfers, opponents worry that if the states find that they can’t afford to maintain those lands, they’ll be forced to sell them to private buyers.
Last week, Republicans in the House in Congress voted to eliminate a rule that requires the government to calculate the value of federal land, including the value created through recreation, before transferring or selling it to states or others. That change, if enacted, could remove a major barrier for speeding up land transfers.
Utah is a fitting place for a battle over public land. The state is home to Arches, Canyonlands and Zion national parks, as well as some 22m acres overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management. The state is filled with red rock canyons and rivers that are the stuff of climbers’ and whitewater paddlers’ dreams.
Unsurprisingly, tourism and recreation fuel the state economy. Utah’s outdoor recreation industry is worth $12bn, including $3.6bn in wages and salaries, and supports approximately 122,000 jobs, according to the OIA.
According to the University of Utah’s Kem C Gardner Policy Institute, which provides research and analysis to the state government, the leisure and hospitality industry (which encompasses more than just outdoor recreation) accounts for 146,795 jobs, outpacing manufacturing (125,160) and finance and insurance (62,860). The development of natural resources, such as oil, gas and minerals, generates a small slice of the pie at 8,500 jobs.
In a statement, the OIA said it will continue to take feedback from its members on determining the best venue for the trade show going forward. It added: “We must be clear that protection of America’s public lands, including those in Utah, are critical and any threat to their protection is a threat to the outdoor industry.”
Patagonia’s CEO Rose Marcario, who was at the trade show, said the company relies on the event to meet buyers and partners and promote its philanthropic efforts, but she added that “standing up for our principles is always our top priority”. She also noted that Patagonia alone can’t force change in Utah’s capital, and hoped that “other brands in the industry would follow our lead”.
A spokesperson for Herbert said on Wednesday she didn’t know whether the governor has read either Metcalf’s opinion piece of Chouinard’s letter. But his deputy chief of staff issued a statement on Tuesday rejecting the claim that the governor is out to destroy the state’s public lands. The statement said Herbert’s objection to the Bears Ears designation was the “sweeping unilateral” nature of the move by an outgoing administration.
Utah’s lieutenant governor Spencer Cox attended the trade show earlier this week and listened to the concerns of industry representatives.
Metcalf, who retired from Black Diamond in 2014, helped to bring the trade show to Salt Lake City more than 20 years ago and make the state an attractive place for outdoor businesses, such as tour guides. Utah now has an Office of Outdoor Recreation to recruit outdoors-focused business to the state.
The trade show is under contract to remain at Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace Convention Center through 2018, but negotiations for the event in 2019 and onward will begin soon.
“I love this state and that’s why I’m so invested in these issues,” Metcalf said via a phone interview from the trade show, adding that the intent of his opinion piece was not to promote leaving Utah but to urge the governor to change his stance around public land and it best uses. “If that does not happen, I think the industry [association] will decide not to renew its contract.”
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PHOTO: Patagonia and Black Diamond have called on the outdoor industry to block efforts by political leaders in Utah to transfer or sell federal land to states. Photograph: jezmcampbell/GuardianWitness