Can the outdoor gear industry wield its power for conservation?

by Greg Hanscom

For the people drifting in rafts and kayaks through the vast silence of Desolation Canyon, the circling plane must have been a puzzle. A King Air turbo prop, it flew low over the canyon rim, dipping its wings to make wide loops over the Tavaputs Plateau and the Green River.

Below, boaters slid along the muddy surface, snaking down one of the longest stretches of wild river in the Lower 48. Desolation and its downstream cousin, Gray Canyon, are not that hard to paddle, but if you want to get away from it all, there's no better place to do it. Deso-Gray will swallow you whole, then spit you out five days and 80 miles later, sun-baked and sandy and feeling as if you've emerged from a rust-tinted dream.

So what was up with the plane? It was too big for a search plane, and too far from anywhere to be an air-tour company from Moab, away to the south. Its passengers were staring down on a fractal landscape of canyons and creek beds and mile upon mile of wind- and sun-blasted desert. What were they looking for?

The plane, as it turns out, belonged to the governor of Utah, who at that time –– in 2004 –– was Olene Walker. Walker had given permission for a delegation of land managers and business representatives to make a reconnaissance flight over Deso-Gray. The group included a representative from the governor's office, high-ranking officials with the federal Bureau of Land Management, and major outdoor-industry delegates, including Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond Equipment, a Salt Lake City-based gear company. They were there to consider protecting the land along the river corridor from the oil and gas development that was marching steadily in its direction.

The flight represented a remarkable turnaround for Utah. In May 2003, Metcalf, whose company makes equipment for mountain climbers and telemark skiers, went toe-to-toe with Walker's predecessor, Michael Leavitt, over a backroom deal Leavitt had made with the Bush administration that stripped temporary wilderness protection from 2.6 million acres of federal lands and paved the way for roads through some of Utah's last wild places. Backed by the Outdoor Industry Association, a gear manufacturers' trade group, Metcalf gave Leavitt an ultimatum: He could either end his assault on the state's wild lands or say good-bye to the twice-a-year Outdoor Retailer show, which injects tens of millions of dollars a year into Salt Lake City's economy.

The showdown pitted conservative Western politics and traditional extractive industries against a new generation of business leaders and an economy nourished by backcountry recreationists. "For boating, backcountry skiing, hiking and climbing, our natural resource is wild landscapes -- the ones that are left," Metcalf says. "If we want to have a sustainable industry 20 years hence, we need to have these environments."

Remarkably, Leavitt listened to Metcalf. He agreed to moderate his position in the roads fight and not pursue rights of way through national parks and monuments or areas deemed worthy of wilderness protection. He also created a new outdoor industry panel to advise him on land-management decisions and develop a list of outdoor "gems" worthy of protection. Walker, his successor, followed suit.

The very fact that Metcalf flew in the governor's plane that day indicated the power that the outdoor industry can wield for conservation –– if its proprietors are willing to fight for the landscapes to which they owe their existence. But now, eight years later, many conservation efforts in the West have faltered, while the outdoor industry still searches for a unified voice. And Metcalf, the industry's most aggressive leader, has begun to wonder about his own involvement. Should he keep on struggling as an inside player, or can he accomplish more as an outside agitator?

Peter Metcalf grew up on Long Island. His mother was a German Jew who came to the United States after World War II, and his father was born in China and brought to the U.S. as a youth in the late 1930s, when the Japanese bombed the city of Guangzhau. During the McCarthy era, Peter's father lost a government job for being a suspected communist, but he later found work as an economist at First National City Bank in Manhattan.

Peter's boyhood heroes –– Huckleberry Finn and Spanky from The Little Rascals –– inspired him to follow a different path. He got his first taste of rock-climbing as a teenager on a weekend trip to the Shawangunks with the Appalachian Mountain Club. In 1973, as a senior in high school, Peter and three friends piled into a 1966 Volkswagen van and drove from Long Island to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Outfitted with wool pants and shirts and leather boots, they pioneered a new route up Mount Fairweather, a 15,600-foot, ice-capped monster that looms over Alaska's Glacier Bay.

Over the next two decades, Metcalf tackled famously forbidding peaks in North America and Europe, making the first alpine-style ascent of Denali's Southeast Face and the first climb of Mount Foraker's Highway of Diamonds. To support his climbing habit, he did odd jobs, selling suits at J.C. Penney, working as a chain hand on oilrigs on the Overthrust Belt in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, and leading trips for the Colorado Outward Bound School.

At Outward Bound, Metcalf met Congressman Mo Udall's son, the future Sen. Mark Udall. "Peter was a real risk-taker in the out-of-doors," Udall recalls.

Udall mentions one incident in particular. In 1980, he was at a base camp near Denali, preparing to climb nearby Mount Foraker. Almost two weeks earlier, Metcalf and two climbing partners left to attempt a daring first-ever alpine-style ascent on the 14,000-foot Mount Hunter. They were traveling light, with only six days' worth of food. Twelve days had passed since a bush pilot had dropped them on the glacier at the foot of Hunter's south face.

"People had begun to think they had met their end on the mountain," Udall recalls. "The only way to get off of that route was to go over the (mountain's) top. It was impossible to rappel back down once they were on the route."

But the next day, "these guys stumbled into camp looking like skeletons," Udall says. Their climb (which one of Metcalf's climbing partners, Glenn Randall, later described in a book called Breaking Point) was "a metaphor for Peter as a businessman," Udall says. "He's going up and over the top."

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."

Today, the Outdoor Industry Association is far from a K Street powerhouse, but in the six years since the Recreation Economy report came out, Hugelmeyer and Co. have become familiar faces in the nation's capital. The association brings CEOs and other representatives to Washington once a year to meet with White House officials, congressional representatives and agency bigwigs. The industry has even created its own Political Action Committee that, since 2008, has funneled a small amount of money -- between $14,000 and $30,000 a year -- into the campaigns of sympathetic politicians.

The lobbying, economic numbers and donations have opened doors. The association has collaborated with the feds on "America's Great Outdoors," President Obama's initiative to get more people outside. Hugelmeyer and others regularly appear at press conferences with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who frequently cites the association's numbers in his speeches. And in April, the White House gave Hugelmeyer a Champion of Change award for his work promoting environmentally and socially responsible business practices.

The outdoor industry has used its newfound clout to advance trade rules that benefit the great majority of its members who manufacture their backpacks, water bottles and other gear overseas. It has also pushed for conservation in the West and beyond. The association has acted as muscle for environmental groups, lobbying for basic funding for state and federal land management agencies and the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which pushes royalties from offshore oil drilling into the purchase of key public lands and waterways.

The association's sister organization, the Conservation Alliance, works along a parallel track. Created in 1989, the alliance collects membership dues from gear companies, then pours that money into grassroots conservation initiatives, mostly aimed at protecting wilderness areas and wild rivers popular with recreationists (see map at hcn.org). In recent years, the organization has also stepped up its lobbying efforts, holding training sessions for its board members in Washington, D.C., and meeting with congressional representatives on the bills and issues that the alliance funds.

"The outdoor recreation industry has really grown in stature and is becoming very influential," says Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society. "It's one thing for conservation groups to talk about the values of public lands, but to have industry leaders come forward to talk about how important sustaining these lands is -- these are jobs that are sustainable and can't be exported. It's not boom or bust."

The biggest win to date for the Conservation Alliance and its allies came in 2009, when President Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Act, protecting more than 2 million acres of new wilderness, more than 1,000 miles of newly designated wild and scenic rivers, and expanding the national parks and monuments system. The Alliance had given more than $700,000 to 13 grassroots organizations whose local campaigns inspired protections in the omnibus bill. It sent delegations to Washington to lobby on behalf of these groups, and wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi –– signed by 36 industry leaders and CEOs –– in support of the bill.

The alliance's executive director, John Sterling, is the first to acknowledge that the outdoor industry was a bit player in a much larger drama. Still, he says, it performed a necessary role in getting economic issues into the debate. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Ron Wyden both cited the Recreation Economy study in speeches supporting the bill.

That same year, the U.S. House of Representatives, nudged by the outdoor industry, approved $900 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Had it passed the Senate, it would have been only the third time since the program was created, in 1965, that it had received its full federal allocation. But soon, everything changed.

The 2010 elections, which swept anti-government, anti-conservation Tea Party Republicans into power in the U.S. House of Representatives, hit Utah particularly hard: Republicans threw out three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett during the state GOP convention. Bennett had sponsored the Washington County Lands Bill, and stood over the president's shoulder as he signed the Omnibus Public Lands Act. In his place, Utah elected Mike Lee, who last year earned a 27 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

In a special election the same year, Huntsman's lieutenant governor, Gary Herbert, landed in the governor's seat. Herbert, a realtor who received campaign contributions from a coal company and road builders, rekindled Utah's road fight last December, announcing plans to lay claim to more than 19,000 miles of rights of way across public lands. In March, he signed an audacious bill demanding that the federal government cede 22 million acres of national forest and BLM land to the state. The Utah Legislature set aside $3 million for a legal showdown. Herbert also signed a bill limiting public access to rivers that cross private lands -- infuriating anglers and boaters -- and voiced his support for a ski area expansion vehemently opposed by Metcalf and other backcountry recreationists.

The news from Washington, D.C., was little better. Last June, Interior Secretary Salazar reversed his "wild lands" protection policy -- which he'd publicly unveiled at a press conference just six months previously, flanked by Hugelmeyer and Metcalf. Wilderness bills were sent spiraling back into the holding pattern of the last couple decades, while President Obama traveled the country singing the praises of domestic energy production. In March, the administration gave its initial blessing to a Denver company's proposal for extensive natural gas drilling spread across more than 200,000 acres of federal land rising up the West Tavaputs Plateau toward Desolation Canyon. Gov. Herbert added his enthusiastic support.

Then, on March 25, in response to a string of editorials Peter Metcalf had published in The Salt Lake Tribune slamming the governor's anti-conservation actions, Herbert replied with his own ultimatum. "If you are interested in finding practical, pragmatic solutions to public lands issues, I welcome your constructive input," Herbert wrote. "If after thoughtful consideration, you determine you cannot work in a spirit of collaboration, then I would expect your resignation from the working group" -- the Ski and Snowboard Industry Working Group within the Governor's Office of Economic Development.

Suddenly, the outdoor industry's ability to advance protection for public lands was in serious question. Meanwhile, Metcalf himself was in a free fall.

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."

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.

© High Country News