On June 9, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire stood at a podium at a posh golf resort in the Cascade Mountains foothills and announced the rollout of the most recent iteration of the Outdoor Industry Association's economic impact numbers. Gregoire, the outgoing chair of the Western Governors' Association, had signed the group on as a sponsor and partner in the study. Standing next to her was REI President and CEO Sally Jewell. Gov. Herbert, Western Governors' co-chair, was there too, along with two other new partners, representing the motorcycle and powerboat industries.
The new numbers were not quite as impressive as the ones in the original Recreation Economy study, but they were far from negligible. The report estimated that Americans spent $645 billion on outdoor recreation in 2011, dwarfing pharmaceuticals, cars, fuel and household utilities. Nearly 40 percent of that spending –– $255 billion –– was in the West, where 2.3 million outdoor-related jobs brought in $110 billion in salaries, wages and business income and more than $30 billion in state and federal taxes. "Breathtaking," Gregoire gushed. "This is one of the best industries we have in this country."
Earlier in the afternoon, Herbert had boasted to the assembled crowd that Utah was proud to be home to climbing gear companies such as Black Diamond and the Outdoor Retailers Show -- "the largest convention in the state." But when a reporter suggested that his public-lands policies had put him at odds with some in the industry, and might well lose him the OR show, he was dismissive. "Maybe you know something I don't," he said, rolling into a speech about how Utah's preponderance of public lands puts it at an economic disadvantage. Recreation, he said firmly, needs to be balanced with development.
Once the questions ended, Gregoire quickly swung the gathering back on message. "The story of the day is $645 billion," she said. "We plan to communicate that to every member of Congress."
How the industry would leverage that number for conservation was unclear. Earlier in the day, Jewell had talked about her company's work on "bike paths, trails, wildlife corridors and connected habitats," only to be upstaged by Bennett Morgan, president and COO of Polaris, who blasted a hard-rocking video of motorcyclists, dirt bikers and snowmobilers bombing around the Western wilds. He urged the crowd to push for more motorized access to public lands. And at the press conference, Herbert was all too eager to show where his heart lay. "Too much is going to non-motorized use," he said. "The demand is growing for off-road use, but there are fewer and fewer acres open for it."
If the debate was simply about recreation versus development, then recreation certainly still had a seat at the table. But beyond that, it seemed that people were free to use the numbers to advance whatever agenda they saw fit.
Three weeks after the Western Governors' Association meeting, Peter Metcalf sent Gov. Herbert his resignation letter. "Many outdoor industry leaders perceive your administration's statements and positions regarding federal lands in Utah as highly detrimental to our interests and concerns, and some as outright hostile," he wrote. "I will continue to advocate on issues affecting public lands as part of a respectful, 'loyal opposition' in which our two camps may yet find points of agreement."
In early July, Metcalf went public with the resignation, sending out a press release excoriating the governor for promoting policies that "are hostile to the interests of the outdoor industry and ignore sizable contributions to the state's economy."
With the summer OR show convening Aug. 2, the question once again becomes whether the outdoor industry will stand behind Metcalf, or let him become a lone voice in the wilderness. On July 10, he sent Hugelmeyer and the Outdoor Industry Association's board chair, Eastern Mountain Sports CEO Will Manzer, an email challenging the association to use the OR show to take Gov. Herbert and Utah's Republican congressional delegation to task. "Failure to do so makes the industry complicit in the most extreme anti-outdoor industry/anti-federal lands stewardship policies in the country," he wrote.
At press time, there was no word on what, if any, fireworks await when the OR Show meets in a few short weeks -- or whether the show will stay in Utah. Metcalf, meanwhile, is adjusting his strategy to meet his state's new realities. He may no longer sit at the governor's table, or ride in his plane, but he can still work with politicians like Rep. Jim Matheson, the state's only congressional Democrat, and the progressive mayors of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. And he can continue to shine the spotlight on the state's leaders when they undermine public lands protection. "We're kind of like a Chinese dissident in China," he says. "We keep drawing attention to this place."
And while Metcalf is concerned about what he sees as a lack of commitment and activism from others in his industry, he says he still finds hope in wild places, and in the people who seek them out. "There are moments in climbing where you manage to work through a crux, you're on a big climb and you find a ledge you can fit two cheeks of your ass on, and you say, 'Thank God.' It creates a level of sensitivity and appreciation for the littlest things -- so much so that the big environments are unbelievable to you," he says.