In 1982, Metcalf landed a job as the general manager of Chouinard Equipment, a company that made rock-climbing safety equipment. It was founded by legendary climber and entrepreneur Yvon Chouinard, a notorious nonconformist whose business philosophy is summed up in the title of his 2005 memoir/manifesto, Let My People Go Surfing.
Today, Chouinard remembers Metcalf as "probably the first guy we ever hired who had any business degree." Actually, Metcalf earned that degree while working for Chouinard, going to school at night and on weekends.
Under Metcalf's leadership, Chouinard Equipment grew quickly, but in 1989, faced with lawsuits over his climbing gear, unable to get meaningful insurance, and wanting to protect his rapidly growing outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, Chouinard put his equipment company into bankruptcy. Metcalf says the climbing community was at a crisis point: Without well-made gear, climbers flirted with catastrophe, and landowners and government agencies, spooked by liability lawsuits, were shutting down access to crags across the country.
"Climbing is more than a sport," Metcalf says. "It's about athleticism and adventure. It's also about learning to trust in your fellow individual. It's the brotherhood, the community of the rope. And it's about the sublime landscapes in which you ply your craft."
Metcalf and a handful of other dedicated employees scraped together enough money to buy the faltering business' assets. He renamed the company Black Diamond and made risk management, certification, and rigorous safety testing its centerpieces. These, combined with clearly written labels that instructed buyers about proper equipment use and the inherent risks of climbing, helped win legal protection for outdoor-gear companies. Climbing areas began to re-open, and the sport exploded in popularity.
Today, Black Diamond is a $150 million-a-year publicly traded company with more than 600 employees, about half of whom are in Utah and the rest scattered across the globe. "When I first started here, it was one step up from a garage shop," says the company's director of quality, an amiable Canuck named Kolin "KP" Powick. "When new people would arrive, it used to be, 'Welcome. Run down to the D.I. (thrift shop) and get yourself a desk and chair.' Now it truly is a global company."
Black Diamond's growth brought political clout, as Metcalf discovered when he first stood up to Gov. Leavitt, then worked with the governor and his successors to protect Utah's public lands. He and other outdoor-industry leaders helped shape the Washington County Lands Bill, which protected 256,000 acres of red-rock wilderness. They convinced Jon Huntsman, who was elected governor in 2005, to drop a plan to strip protection from roadless areas on the state's national forests.
They also helped hold the line on energy development around Desolation and Gray canyons. Following the fateful flight in the governor's plane in 2004, Gov. Walker joined them in challenging the BLM's plans to lease lands near Desolation for oil and gas drilling. Before Huntsman was appointed ambassador to China in 2009, he even talked about seeking permanent wild and scenic river protection for the canyon.
"For a period of time here, people were talking about the importance of the active outdoor industry, the importance of public lands, and how outdoor recreation can't be mixed up with just generic tourism," Metcalf says. "It seemed like people were listening to what we were saying -- like it mattered."
In the 1980s, "active recreation" was the outdoor sports industry's scruffy little brother. It consisted of a passel of small companies, largely founded by backcountry aficionados: climbers, backpackers, and whitewater boaters, many of whom started businesses in garages, making their gear by hand.
The industry's first weak attempts at a trade show came during the annual Ski Industry of America show, which packs the Las Vegas Convention Center with the latest skis, boots and high-tech clothing. The backcountry crowd held its sideshow at the Tropicana out on the Strip. The first official Outdoor Retailer or "OR" Show was held in 1989 in the basement of the Hilton in Reno, Nev. It grew steadily, if slowly, there until 1996, when Peter Metcalf helped bring it to Salt Lake City.
Since then, the business has ballooned. The OR show has swelled into a mammoth bazaar that jams the Salt Palace convention center with more than 2,000 companies and 40,000 people. It holds two events each year, one in winter and one in summer, racking up an estimated $40 million a year in direct spending in Salt Lake City. The Outdoor Industry Association, which sponsors the show, now includes more than a thousand member companies, ranging from equipment manufacturers like Black Diamond and The North Face to Backpacker magazine and the makers of Clif Bar.
Still, in 2003, when Metcalf wrote Gov. Leavitt threatening to pull the OR show out of Salt Lake, he was going out on a limb. He wasn't on the Outdoor Industry Association's board at the time (though he would be shortly thereafter), so he was making a threat he couldn't actually carry out –– at least not by himself. "That letter caused a question about whether the industry felt this way or just Peter," says the association's president and CEO, Frank Hugelmeyer, who got his start hawking outdoor equipment at New York City's iconic gear shop, Paragon Sports. "The papers called us, and I said, 'Yeah, the industry does feel this way.' That started the real firestorm. Now you had an industry position."
Together, Metcalf and Hugelmeyer sat down with Leavitt, building their case that the outdoor industry was a key economic player in the West -- and that wide-open spaces were critical to sustaining it. Slowly, they began to reframe the discussion about public lands from one of jobs-versus-the environment to a more nuanced discussion that involved both jobs and the environment. "It changed the conversation here," says Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "I think it has drifted down to a common understanding that there's an economic value to protecting places."
But even as they seemed to be succeeding on the state level, nationally, the industry wasn't gaining traction. Hugelmeyer recalls huddling with colleagues over drinks at the Hyatt in Washington, D.C., after a frustrating day of lobbying on Capitol Hill in 2004. "In the halls of Congress, we were still being treating as tree-huggers," he says. "I remember saying, 'We need to quantify this -- the real true impact of outdoor recreation.'"
The notes they scribbled on a napkin that evening would inspire two years of work, funded by the equipment giant REI, aimed at putting a price tag on active outdoor recreation nationwide. The resulting report, The Active Outdoor Recreation Economy, published in 2006, estimated that, all told, the outdoor business generated an astronomical $730 billion annually, supporting 6.5 million jobs and touching more than one in every 12 dollars circulating in the economy.
The figure included everything from gear manufacturing and sales to hotel rooms and restaurants, but if you start throwing numbers like that around, politicians' ears perk up, says Craig Mackey, the Outdoor Industry Association's director of recreation policy. "That report has gained us an enormous amount of traction in Washington, D.C., and beyond."