Utah’s anti-wilderness moves could cost it the outdoor industry’s allegiance

In the battle over the future of wilderness, Utah has been the scene of a citizens’ crusade that’s taken on all the trappings of a holy war. For years, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance’s 9.1 million-acre wilderness proposal has suffered the death of a thousand cuts at the hands of the state’s conservative congressional delegation. And this spring, Utah’s governor dealt it two more blows.

On April 9, Gov. Mike Leavitt, R, signed a deal with the U.S. Department of Interior that allows the state to claim ownership of unmaintained backcountry roads that cross federal land — a move that could disqualify huge swaths of roadless land from wilderness protection (HCN, 5/12/03: Backcountry road deal runs over wilderness). Two days later, Utah and the Interior Department reached an out-of-court settlement that stripped protection from 2.6 million acres of potential wilderness in the state — a settlement that could set a precedent for the entire West (HCN, 4/28/03: Wilderness takes a massive hit) .

But in May, an unlikely player, the national outdoor-equipment industry, waded into the fray. And the industry is waving a big banner: the almighty dollar.

Twice a year, the industry converges on Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace for the Outdoor Retailer Show, a mega-bazaar where it peddles its newest wares — everything from backpacks and boots to freeze-dried food and glow sticks — to gear-shop owners. Each show attracts between 15,000 and 18,000 people to Salt Lake City. But now, the Outdoor Industry Association says it may move elsewhere, unless the governor moderates his stance on wilderness protection.

“The tipping point’s been hit on this issue,” says Peter Metcalf, the co-founder of the Salt Lake City-based climbing-equipment giant, Black Diamond. He’s the one who first suggested that the Outdoor Retailer show break camp, and he’s made his case in terms that transcend partisan politics: “I framed the debate in terms of this trade show, which is tangible. You can put a dollar figure on it.”

That figure is at least $24 million in “direct visitor spending” — or about 10 percent of Salt Lake City’s total convention business. And the specter of a trade-show exodus has spurred Salt Lake’s business community to action.

“They’re our most important customer,” says Jason Mathis of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re willing to do whatever we can to make sure they continue to be happy with Salt Lake City.”

That has included taking the case of the outdoor retailers and Salt Lake businesses straight to Gov. Leavitt. In late May, the governor met with Frank Hugelmeyer, the president of the Outdoor Industry Association — which represents the Outdoor Retailer exhibitors — to lay groundwork for a June 4 meeting between Hugelmeyer, Metcalf and other outdoor-industry leaders.

Leavitt spokeswoman Natalie Gochnour says, “The governor would very much like to be a champion for Utah wilderness.” What has prevented him from supporting more wilderness, she says, is the “extremism” of groups such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which has adamantly maintained a don’t-yield-an-acre stance.

That’s fine with Metcalf. “(Leavitt) may not be a supporter of (the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance),” he says. “But he can show that he gets it: He gets the idea that in the New West, human-powered recreation has a place at the table.”

Environmentalists are happy to have found strong allies. Larry Young, the executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, says he hopes “this will be a wake-up call for the kind of dramatic over-reaching that Leavitt engaged in (with the April settlements). We would like to see meaningful dialogue between the governor and the conservation community.”

And wilderness advocates are admitting that the outdoor industry’s bottom-line tactics may be more effective than those traditionally employed by the environmental community.

“(The industry has realized) that there’s a connection between the need to protect wilderness and their bottom line,” says Brian O’Donnell of The Wilderness Society’s Durango, Colo.-based Wilderness Support Center. “This is the first time we’ve really seen the rubber meet the road in a big way.”

The author is an assistant editor for High Country News.

• Outdoor Industry Association, 303-444-3353, www.outdoorindustry.org

• Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, 801-538-1000, www.utah.gov/governor/.