What happens when a sleeping giant wakes?

How the outdoor industry is flexing its muscle in support of public lands.

Comb Ridge, in the new Bears Ears National Monument. Photo by Mikey Schaefer.

The Brainerd Foundation is pleased to highlight the work of our colleagues at the Conservation Alliance. Their work in defense of public lands is an object lesson in what 21st Century advocacy can look like.


During my 27-year career in the outdoor industry, I have never seen us so galvanized around one issue: the decision to flex our economic muscle in support of America’s public lands.

How are we doing it? We are channeling our collective love for public lands into focused advocacy for our wild places. And, after 20 years in Salt Lake City, Utah, the industry is pulling its annual trade show — an event that pumps $50 million annually into the Salt Lake economy — out of the state.

A call to action

When former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt spoke at a breakfast event my organization hosted at this same trade show two years ago, he left us with this charge:

“Your industry — the $646 billion per year outdoor recreation industry — is a sleeping giant. If you mobilize the full economic and political power of your industry, you can change the debate.”

The “debate” he referenced is the one about the future of our public lands, and it has recently been dominated by the likes of Utah Congressman Rob Bishop, who is determined to undermine our public lands system to benefit private interests and extractive industries. Or the Bundy family, icons of the latest incarnation of the Sagebrush Rebellion, who demand state or local control of federal lands. And most recently, by President Trump and his executive order that requires a review of 27 Antiquities Act monument designations made in the last 21 years.

During the Obama administration, conservation organizations led the effort to counter these loud voices. But in the post-Obama political landscape, the usual conservation talking points, though important, are not enough. Which brings me back to Secretary Babbitt’s “sleeping giant” metaphor.

A view from the Bears Ears National Monument. Photo by Josh Ewing.

A new era

The outdoor industry has a unique opportunity to influence the future of public lands policy. According to a newly updated study by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), we represent 7.6 million jobs and $887 billion in economic activity that depends heavily on protected public lands. And we are seizing that opportunity, starting with defending the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, a million-plus acres of weathered sandstone, deep canyons, forests, ancient cliff dwellings, and sacred rock art that offer world-class opportunities for exploration, solitude, and recreation.

President Obama designated the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in December 2016. During the effort to secure protection for the region, we organized both business leaders and recreation users to demonstrate broad support for protecting the Bears Ears. Though that campaign was led by a coalition of Native American tribes, we added an economic component to the effort that made it clear that there were many reasons to save the landscape from extraction and unregulated motorized use. We learned that our targeted advocacy could make a difference.

Shortly after the November election, we heard that Utah’s Congressional leadership was pushing President Trump to reduce the size of the new National Monument or rescind the designation entirely. In February, the Utah legislature passed, and Governor Gary Herbert signed, a resolution asking Trump to rescind the designation. In a few days time, an emboldened outdoor industry came together and suggested that it might move the twice-yearly Outdoor Retailer trade show from Salt Lake City to a state whose policies support public lands as the important recreation assets they are.

The giant had awoken, and found its voice.

Photo by Jerry and Marcy Monkman.

How we found our voice

Founded it 1989, my organization, The Conservation Alliance, is a group of more than 200 outdoor industry companies that fund and partner with organizations working to protect specific wild places for their recreation and habitat values. We were founded by industry leaders Patagonia, REI, The North Face, and Kelty, who shared a belief that the outdoor industry needed to do more collectively to ensure that our mountains, forests, deserts, and rivers are protected. These places, they reasoned, have inherent value, but they are also important to customers who recreate in the outdoors. Our founders recognized their enlightened self-interest.

But during the George W. Bush administration, we recognized that we need to provide more than funding: we need to bring our business voices to bear on conservation issues. Around the same time, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), the outdoor industry’s trade association, released a study that demonstrated the economic power of the industry throughout the U.S.

From the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2017 report, “The Outdoor Recreation Economy,” available here.

For the first time, we could prove that managing lands for hikers, bikers, paddlers, climbers, and skiers makes more economic sense than sacrificing these lands to logging, mining, and oil and gas drilling. Together, the OIA and The Conservation Alliance pushed for passage of the 2009 Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, and we have since partnered to show business support for many Wilderness bills and National Monument designations.

From the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2017 report, “The Outdoor Recreation Economy,” available here.

And we’ve grown. Along the way our two organizations joined forces with the Outdoor Alliance, which coalesces recreation user groups that represent climbers, skiers, mountain bikers, hikers, and paddlers. And so, for three years now, we have brought together outdoor business, conservation, and recreation users to bring a unified spectrum of voices to the debate about the future of our public lands.

Bears Ears and the Salt Lake City Outdoor Retailer Trade Show

With Bears Ears under threat, the sleeping giant is waking up. The issue came to a head in a February conference call between Utah Governor Herbert and outdoor industry leaders in which the governor made it clear that he would not change his position on the Bears Ears. OIA and Outdoor Retailer (the company that organizes the trade show) followed up this conversation with an announcement that Salt Lake City would not be invited to bid to host the show in the future.

Though this conflict with Utah’s political leadership has not changed their position on public lands, it has raised the profile of those lands. The trade show organizers now have other states competing to host the show, and touting their public lands conservation bona fides in the process. For example, shortly after the Utah dust-up, a conservation group in Colorado ran this newspaper ad:

Image courtesy of Conservation Colorado.

What comes next?

In July, when Salt Lake City hosts the Outdoor Retailer Show for the last time, The Conservation Alliance, Outdoor Industry Association, Outdoor Alliance, and Outdoor Retailer will co-host “This Land is Our Land,” a march for public lands. We are encouraging our outdoor industry colleagues to march from the Salt Palace Convention Center to the Utah State Capitol, where we will demonstrate our support of public lands. We will thank Salt Lake City for 20 years of trade show memories, and also make it clear that we are leaving Utah because its political leaders do not share our values when it comes to public lands.

Meanwhile, President Trump has ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review all national monument designations larger than 100,000 acres from the past 21 years to determine whether their boundaries are consistent with the intent of the Antiquities Act. In announcing the review, Secretary Zinke said that he will make a recommendation on the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument within 45 days. A 15-day public comment period for the Bears Ears review opened on May 12. The outdoor industry came together in 2016 to advocate for the Bears Ears designation, and we will work together to generate an outpouring of support for keeping the Bears Ears boundaries unchanged.

The Bears Ears landscape is exactly the kind of place the Antiquities Act intended to protect. It is rich in cultural history, archaeological sites, and recreation opportunities. We’re confident that any credible review of the Bears Ears designation will confirm the boundaries are more than justified. We hope to prevail on the campaign to protect the designation of Bears Ears, and we will continue to raise our voices to defend public lands in the future.