With all of the industry's gains teetering precariously, a debate that its leaders had been having "around the kitchen table," as one CEO puts it, became more urgent: What was the best course of action? Should the industry focus, laser-like, on protecting wilderness, wild lands and wild rivers? Or should it try to build new, broader-based partnerships with nontraditional bedfellows, including motorized groups, in an effort to win more political sway on issues such as parks and recreation funding, favorable trade regulations and the likes?
Metcalf argues for renewed focus. In a hostile political climate, he says, it is all the more important to stay true to the cause -- protecting what he praises as the West's "iconic" wild landscapes.
Hugelmeyer's vision is both pragmatic and more expansive. He agrees that taking a strong stand has been good for the association, and vows not to back down on protecting wilderness areas and roadless forests. But he sees the association as the champion of a "national recreation system" that encompasses everything from city parks and bike paths to remote wilderness areas. "We're for the full spectrum," he says.
That full spectrum includes motorized recreation. To further his group's aims, Hugelmeyer is willing to work with ATV and snowmobiler groups and even extractive industries. "I don't know anybody who walks to the trailhead," he says. "Our fleece and kayaks have petroleum products in them." And this is where the divide begins to get serious.
"That path could be very problematic for hunters, anglers and the conservation community," says one longtime environmental insider. "If the outdoor industry and motorized and extractive groups agree that, say, 20 percent of roadless areas should remain roadless, and the rest should be opened to development, what politician isn't going to stand up and say, 'Great. I can go with that.' "
The debate sheds light on the fracture lines inside the still-young outdoor industry. The overall economic numbers are impressive, but the industry itself still consists of thousands of small players -- gear manufacturers, river guiding companies, outdoor shops, motels and gas stations. That puts the industry at a political disadvantage compared to oil and gas, which is dominated by huge corporations, and it opens the industry to infighting. The Portland-based shoe company KEEN, for example, got an angry letter a few years back from the International Mountain Bicyling Association over its support for a wilderness bill on Mount Hood. (Mountain bikes are not permitted in wilderness areas.)
But the outdoor industry's biggest weakness boils down to participation. The 1,300-member Outdoor Industry Association represents only a tiny fraction of the industry as a whole. The Conservation Alliance claims only about 200 members, and last year it gave away just over $1 million, generally in $30,000 chunks to groups such as American Whitewater, Earthjustice, Montana Wilderness Association and the Wyoming Outdoor Council. This year, it has budgeted $1.2 million. "We're proud of the fact that we represent the outdoor industry's collective commitment," Sterling says. "But that really is chump change compared to what the oil and gas industry is able to contribute to projects we're always fighting."
Yvon Chouinard is more blunt. His company, Patagonia, has given away close to $50 million to environmental causes over the years, and he co-founded a coalition called 1% for the Planet whose member companies tithe a portion of their sales to environmental groups. "It's a great disappointment to me that the outdoor industry hasn't stepped up more," says Chouinard. "There are 1,500 members of 1% for the Planet. Very few are members of the outdoor industry. It's pretty disgraceful."
Certainly, some companies have their own conservation programs. Many sponsor trail days and tree plantings. A few campaign to protect wild places. But political power comes from working in numbers, with a strong sense of unity, rather than by each company simply doing its own little bit.
"We're all pretty immature companies," says Steve Barker, the founder and longtime CEO of Eagle Creek, a company that makes backpacks and luggage. "We're running around trying to get the cattle heading the right way, while the oil and gas industry is organized, on message, pounding it home to us three times a night on TV."
In early May, Peter Metcalf was still mulling over his response to Gov. Herbert's letter. If there was any possibility of some sort of "coalition government," as Metcalf put it, he wanted to remain a part of it. But every sign he'd received suggested that the "collaboration" the governor spoke of in his letter amounted to Herbert's way or the highway.
Metcalf was inclined to light out for the highway, but he knew that his response would make a statement about the position of the larger outdoor industry in Western conservation debates. Should he go quietly back to the bargaining table to try to negotiate a stronger voice for the recreation economy –– or come out swinging, resign and take the whole feud public?
As Metcalf considered, word hit the newspapers that the Outdoor Retailer Show might be looking for a new home anyway. There simply wasn't enough space at the Salt Palace to accommodate the growing number of vendors, and Salt Lake City's hotels overflowed during the summer show, forcing some attendees to book rooms as far away as Provo, 45 miles away.
Metcalf says a move had been under discussion for several years. This time around, however, something had changed. In the past, Metcalf was among a vocal group within the industry who argued for keeping the show in Salt Lake, simply because they felt that it gave them power to affect Utah's public policy. "In the last nine to 12 months, that group's voice, including my own, just died," he says. "If this is the impact we are having with Herbert, we don't need an impact."
Metcalf told Salt Lake Tribune reporters this in mid-May, but once again his words seemed to backfire. In a Tribune article, Herbert spokeswoman Ally Isom claimed that politics were irrelevant to the Outdoor Retailers' decision to look elsewhere, and accused Metcalf of using the moment to "misrepresent fact for personal agendas." (Isom didn't use Metcalf's name, but it was clear who she was talking about.)
"That was the tipping point," Metcalf says. "I can be more effective speaking up publicly in a thoughtful way than working under the illusion that I'm somehow a confidant of the governor, who will listen to me only if I don't publicly challenge him."