Bears Ears: The Outdoor Industry and Public Lands

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On February 7th, 2017, Patagonia, one of the world’s most revered outdoor apparel brands, sent shockwaves across the outdoor industry, when they announced they were dropping out of the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show in Salt Lake City, which brings in an estimated $45 million in direct spending to the state of Utah.

Just four days earlier, Governor Gary Herbert signed a non-binding resolution requesting the Trump Administration to rescind Bears Ears National Monument; established by President Barack Obama on December 28th, 2016 to the praise of Native Americans and environmentalists. The declaration stated that the monument would not interfere with the rights of landowners in or adjacent to the property, and that they would retain full use and access to their land. It also assured that current livestock grazing and timber practices would continue as they currently have.

The Forest Service, who manages the land jointly with the Bureau of Land Management, announced that the land would be open to hunting, fishing, hiking, climbing, cycling, and off highway motoring.

Bears Ears National Monument covers over one million acres of land in Southeast Utah, which holds sacred and significant value to Native American tribes as well as outdoor enthusiasts. The monument was established with the cooperation of the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition, who felt that the original discussion draft introduced by state representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, didn’t give full representation to Native American tribes.

The concern of the tribes was based on two factors. The first being the declaration of an ‘Energy Zone’ between the Cedar and Tank Mesas by Utah’s legislature, leaving the area open to gas, oil, and mineral development. The second was the threat of grave looting and vandalism from sacred sites, including the defacing of rock art, and destruction of a 19th-Century Navajo home, which was then utilized for firewood.

The move by the Utah legislature negatively affected Utah’s outdoor industry, including companies such as Black Diamond, whose CEO Peter Metcalf accused Herbert of launching “an all out assault against Utah’s protected public lands and Utah’s newest national monument” in a Salt Lake Tribune op-ed, calling for Outdoor Retailer to relocate to a more public land-friendly state.

Metcalf’s statement also came on the heels of two articles of legislation introduced into the House in late January by Chaffetz: H.R. 621 and H.R. 622. H.R. 621 proposed the sale of 3.3 million acres of federal lands across ten Western states. The bill has since been withdrawn after fierce public outcry. H.R. 622, which remains introduced, would terminate the law enforcement capacities of the Forest Service, leaving management to poorly prepared local authorities. As Chaffetz attempted to gauge public interest for his policies in a town hall, he found himself backed in by a strong public land defense from constituents.

In the following days, Peak Design, Arc’teryx, Kokopelli Packraft, Polartec, Metolious, Voormi, Kammok, GU, Power Practical and Bedrock Sandals announced their withdrawal from Outdoor Retailer, while other companies such as Cotopaxi, REI and The North Face stated their intentions to remain in support of small businesses, while also committing an annual $100,000 to a newly created Public Lands Defense Fund, administered by the Conservation Alliance. Similarly, Ibex committed $10,000 to the Defense Fund, but announced they would be attending the show with a smaller team and reduced schedule.

In 2012, the Outdoor Industry Association reported that the outdoor recreation economy in Utah was responsible for $12 billion in consumer spending and 122,000 jobs, as well as $856 million in state and local revenue.

A 2013 report on the Outdoor Recreation Vision of Utah, promotes the health and economic benefits of a strong outdoor recreation industry, while asking if the high cost of guides, travel, and equipment was out of range for average families. The introduction ends ominously with “And, of course, there are many other issues.”

Outdoor Retailer itself, which has a contract through 2018, announced they would be soliciting new locations for the show in 2019 and onward. In response, Governor Herbert stated on February 13th he would meet with leaders from Outdoor Retailer and the outdoor industry in an attempt to find common ground. After the February 16th conference, between the governor and the industry which failed to reach a consensus, it was decided that Outdoor Retailer would definitely leave Salt Lake City in 2019.

Now is the time when outdoor brands and government representatives are listening, and the victory over H.R. 621, was a demonstration of the passionate defense for public lands. In early February, the Outdoor Industry Association issued an open letter to the Trump Administration, reflecting the views of over 200 large and small businesses and touting the strength of a strong outdoor economy, which accrues $646 billion annually and employs more than six million people. In the letter, they state:

“It is an American right to roam in our public lands. The people of the United States, today and tomorrow, share equally in the ownership of these majestic places. This powerful idea transcends party lines and sets our country apart from the rest of the world. That is why we strongly oppose any proposal, current or future, that devalues or compromises the integrity of our national public lands.”

But public lands will not be defended by the outdoor industry alone. It is up to the public, be it hunters, climbers, fisherman, skiers, bikers, off-road enthusiasts or hikers, to make their voices heard, write congressman, attend local meetings, and vehemently defend our national public lands.