While the Bundy family’s exploits in Nevada and Oregon have drawn new attention recently as trials proceed, the Sagebrush Rebellion has been advancing steadily on another front in Utah. Over the past few years, the state’s congressional representatives have spent over $500,000 studying the viability of transferring federal lands to state control, promoted a $14 million lawsuit to try to force transfer, and introduced a slew of bills to gut federal oversight and protections of public lands. Now, a battle is brewing between two of the state’s most powerful forces: its conservative political leadership, which harbors a century-old distrust of federal land agencies, and its massive outdoor recreation industry, which depends on those same public lands for its survival.
In the past six weeks, the Utah delegation has proposed legislation to roll back public-lands protections in unprecedented ways, rattling the conservation community nationwide. On Dec. 29, the day after President Barack Obama announced the designation of Bears Ears National Monument under the 1906 Antiquities Act, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said he would do everything in his power to “undo” the decision. Lee didn’t stop there: “I am then going to do what I can to repeal the Antiquities Act so that future President Obamas can not do this to rural communities ever again,” he wrote in a blog post. In January, Republican state representatives also went after national monuments — Gregory Hughes introduced a resolution to rescind Bears Ears, and Mike Noel proposed shrinking Grand Staircase-Escalante, which former President Bill Clinton created in 1996.
On its first day back in session this year, the House passed a package of rules with a provision spearheaded by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, that makes it easier to transfer federal lands to state control. Later in January, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced a bill to do away with the law enforcement arms of both the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service and require the Interior Department to provide grants to state and local government agencies to enforce federal laws themselves. To top it off, Noel, R-Kanab, is reportedly angling to become head of the BLM. Noel advocates defunding large parts of the agency and has long derided it for putting too much emphasis on conservation.
Outdoor industry leaders have joined conservationists nationwide who see this series of events as an all-out attack on public lands. But whether the outdoor industry can help tilt the scales toward federal lands protections, especially given the Utah delegation’s stance, may be a major test of its emerging political clout. “We’ve struggled for a long time to be heard in Washington,” says Alex Boian, vice president of government affairs for the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), a major trade group based in Boulder, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. “When I first started (13 years ago), we’d go to town, meet with an intern in the hallway, they’d dutifully write down our issues and they’d get filed away. Now, we are meeting with senior advisors to the president and members of Congress.”
One of the ongoing signs of the industry’s current pushback in Utah is its threat to move the renowned Outdoor Retailer trade show out of the state. The show, held twice yearly in Salt Lake City, is a gearhead’s wonderland, where buyers and outdoors fanatics ogle the latest products. The largest gathering of outdoor manufacturers and retailers in the country, it brings tens of millions of dollars to Utah annually. Industry luminary Peter Metcalf, founder of Salt Lake-based gear company Black Diamond Equipment, recently renewed his call for the trade show to be moved to another state.
The first time Metcalf suggested moving the OR show was in 2003, when then-Gov. Mike Leavitt made a deal with then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton to remove 2.6 million acres of the state’s public lands from consideration for wilderness protections. Leavitt also pushed a plan to give counties control over thousands of miles of roads through wild areas. After meeting with Metcalf, though, Leavitt walked back his roads plan — and OR stayed.
Since the threat of yanking the trade show hasn’t yet been fulfilled, “there’s an unfortunate belief by many in the state that this is just a charade,” Metcalf told High Country News. But the only reason he and others didn’t follow through on the first or second attempt, he said, was that they managed to find common ground with the governor’s office and other representatives. In 2013, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert created the nation’s first state Office of Outdoor Recreation to help the state plan development of activities like hiking, mountain biking and skiing. (Colorado has since formed a similar office, and other states have taken steps to do so.)
This time around, no one knows how responsive Utah leadership will be. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard recently penned his own angry critique of Utah’s public-lands direction. “Politicians in the state don’t seem to get that the outdoor industry — and their own state economy — depend on access to public lands for recreation,” Chouinard wrote. As of press time, Patagonia had announced that it was pulling out of the OR show in response to Gov. Herbert’s signing of the resolution to overturn Bears Ears. Arc’teryx, a Canadian outdoor clothing company, and Polartec, a textile company, followed suit, while Vermont-based Ibex Outdoor Clothing announced it would reduce its presence at the show in protest. Kevin Boyle, co-founder of outdoor clothing company KÜHL, also says he’ll consider pulling out of the trade show as a way to make a stand on public lands.
“Whenever somebody like a Peter Metcalf or Yvon Chouinard expresses their values, we pay attention,” says Boian. The Outdoor Industry Association helped sponsor a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post in January criticizing the attack on Western public lands, signed by 100 leaders of outdoor-gear companies. On Feb. 6, Outdoor Retailer announced it will look for a new location for the show after its Salt Lake City contract ends in 2018, in a state that “upholds our industry’s core values around the importance of America’s public lands system.” (Politicians in both Colorado and New Mexico have informally volunteered to host it.) For now, Boian says the association is working through other channels — lobbying politicians and supporting pro-public lands campaigns —to get its message across.
Much of the outdoor recreation industry’s growing influence stems from its economic impact. According to a 2012 Outdoor Industry Association report, Utah’s outdoor recreation companies employed 122,000 people and brought $12 billion into the state each year. Nationwide, the industry generates $646 billion in consumer spending each year, plus 6.1 million jobs. In December, Congress unanimously passed a law to finally require the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis to measure outdoor recreation’s contribution to the national gross domestic product.
In recent years, recreation interests have gotten a seat at the table for legislation, such as with the 2016 Public Lands Initiative, a failed proposal for the future of eastern Utah led by Reps. Bishop and Chaffetz, Boian says. The industry association marked up a draft of the initiative, criticizing a provision that could have prohibited presidents from using the Antiquities Act to create national monuments in several Utah counties. In the later proposal, that part had been removed — though it popped up in a separate bill introduced at the same time. In early 2016, outdoor representatives were also part of the creation of the BLM’s master leasing plan to manage 800,000 acres near Moab. Brad Petersen, the first director of Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, was invited to scrutinize the state’s response to the BLM. “It was the first time that recreational interests had been officially requested and included in a legal response by a state agency,” Petersen says. “The initial rhetoric and tone of the state’s legal response went from being … energy-development-centric to neutral, with increased support for the benefits of Utah’s recreation economy.”
But despite the industry’s growing political muscle, Petersen and Metcalf say the Office of Outdoor Recreation still isn’t effective enough in giving it a voice on public policy. “Ultimately, the Office of Outdoor Recreation works for the governor,” Petersen says. And while Utah’s governor has been known to compromise on public lands to a greater degree than most of the state’s congressional delegation, he signed the Transfer of Public Lands Act in 2012 and now supports rescinding Bears Ears National Monument.
It’s unclear how far Utah’s delegation can take its anti-federal lands vision; reversing major monument designations doesn’t have much of a precedent. And Rep. Chaffetz recently withdrew a bill to transfer 3.3 million acres of Western public land to state control, after his proposal received harsh criticism from constituents. An in-depth report endorsed by 11 Western attorneys general last year concluded that Utah’s legal arguments for a large-scale land transfer are deeply flawed. (Neither Bishop or Chaffetz would respond to HCN’s requests for comment on this story.)
As its next step, Metcalf said, the outdoor recreation industry should become more heavily involved with state elections — making public lands an issue on which voters base their choice of candidates at all levels. “We need to make (public lands) a high-profile binary issue,” he said.
In 2015, Metcalf stepped down from his CEO role at Black Diamond. Today, as CEO-emeritus, his focus is on advocacy through groups like the Conservation Alliance, which gives grants to environmental organizations. Recently, he’s been reading up on how the National Rifle Association and conservative pro-life groups gained the powerful political influence they have. Could the outdoor industry do the same? “You can make a difference in an off-year election,” he says. “We can prove whether we can affect an election in two years.”
This story has been updated to reflect additional outdoor gear companies that have also pulled out of this year's OR show in response to Governor Herbert signing the resolution to rescind Bears Ears National Monument.