At long last, the people who make our beloved backpacking tents and climbing ropes and kayaks have taken some responsibility for helping us trample freely about the wilderness.
In May, leaders of the Outdoor Industry
Association (OIA) gave Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt an ultimatum. Leavitt
had just signed deals stripping temporary wilderness protection
from 2.6 million acres of federal land, and paving the way for
roads across many more. Association representative Peter Metcalf,
co-founder of the climbing-gear company, Black Diamond, told the
governor he could either stop undermining wilderness or lose the
Outdoor Retailer Show, a twice-a-year gear-fest that injects Salt
Lake City’s economy with an estimated $24 million annually.
Land-lovers everywhere gave a great whoop of glee. It was
exciting, and not just because big business was taking a stand for
land protection, rather than development. It was invigorating
because wilderness haters got a taste of their own medicine.
Miners, off-road vehicle users and some ranchers have long railed
against wilderness designation. Backed by powerful myths such as
the Marlboro Man, and even stronger business interests -- Andalex
Resources Inc., for example, which fought for years to dig coal
from Southern Utah’s Kaiparowits Plateau -- they’ve
stonewalled wilderness protection for decades.
comes the Outdoor Industry Association, and suddenly wilderness
advocates have big bucks to back up their cause. In short order,
Salt Lake business leaders were down on bended knee, begging the
group to keep its gear show in town. Metcalf and OIA President
Frank Hugelmeyer, meanwhile, landed a string of personal meetings
with Gov. Leavitt.
The outcome of these meetings will be
announced at the Outdoor Retailer Show, which comes to Salt Lake
this week. Leavitt has indicated he’s willing to support some
protection for land that has sat in "wilderness-study area" limbo
for years. So we may see some movement in one of the West’s
most divisive land fights -- all thanks to "quiet recreationists"
and our dollars giving the outdoor recreation industry a leg to
But slow down, fellow fun hogs. Don’t go
patting yourselves on the back, yet.
and the Outdoor Industry Association have done an admirable thing,
both in recognizing that their bottom line is aligned with the
health of the land, and in leveling the economic playing field for
those who want to protect wilderness. But the story begs a tough
question: Is this battle of the businesses any way to manage the
land? What happens if the governor does support wilderness? Will
the BlueRibbon Coalition, or Yamaha, or Jeep, boycott Utah?
I can see the economists now, trying to figure out whose
business is worth more -- the backpackers’ or the
Instead of using the big national
gear show to rub wilderness-haters’ noses in it, we should
take this opportunity to look in the mirror. The Salt Lake
gathering illustrates that unmotorized recreationists have become
an economic force: According to the Outdoor Industry Association,
retail sales of camping and climbing gear, and outdoor clothes and
footwear, amounted to almost $5 billion in 2001. At the same time,
our visits to public lands have also become a destructive force.
Millions of us flock to the mountains and deserts each
year to hike, bike, float and climb. We trample the trails, silt up
the streams and terrorize the wildlife and each other. Even rock
climbers -- lighter on their feet than any hiker or horseback rider
-- do damage. Scientists have long known that climbers can scare
eagles and falcons away from their nests, but new studies show they
also elbow out a host of other sensitive wildlife, ranging from
plants to tiny snails.
But rather than speaking with a
unified voice for the protection of wild lands, we too often bicker
among ourselves over who does the most damage, and what toys should
be allowed where. Some mountain bikers, for example, can’t
find it in their hearts to support wilderness protection because
bikes are outlawed in wilderness areas. Meanwhile, it’s left
to shoestring nonprofit groups and industry leaders such as Peter
Metcalf and Frank Hugelmeyer to fight the uphill battle for
With power comes responsibility, and we quiet
recreationists need to be a little less quiet about the fate of our
playgrounds. We need to speak up for public-land protection, even
if it means we can’t bring every toy to every corner of the
backcountry. We need to engage in the messy process of democracy, a
process that involves hard work and time and compromise.
If we don’t, big business will decide the fate of the public
lands, for better or worse, while we’re outdoors having our