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for people who care about the West

Republican politicians should support the outdoor industry

Public lands should be conserved — not exploited for short-term gain.

 

Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources.


It’s easy to forget now, but President Donald Trump didn’t just campaign on his plan for a border wall or his opposition to Hillary Clinton. He ran on his alleged business acumen, and part of his appeal was based on the idea that he knew a good deal when he saw one.

Now, new economic numbers show us that his understanding of our economy — and his knowledge of which American industries have the brightest future — are mistaken. Thanks to Bureau of Economic Analysis numbers released Feb. 14, we know that Trump’s attacks on public lands, coupled with his touting of outmoded business models like coal mining, get things exactly backwards.

The agency announced that the outdoor industry — think everything from the making and marketing of hiking boots, tents and all-terrain vehicles to the work involved in providing services like outdoor guides, food and lodging — contributed approximately $373.7 billion toward our gross domestic product in 2016, making up more than 2 percent of the total. This is bigger than extractive industries like mining, oil and gas combined — together, those industries contributed 1.4 percent — and double the economic impact of agriculture, including farming and logging.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis also found that the industry contributes $673 billion to a figure called “U.S. gross output,” which measures the total value of domestic goods and services produced by an industry. In other words, there’s a huge market for what the outdoor industry is offering. 

Contrary to Trump’s rhetoric, our economic future relies more on conserving the public lands that support this industry than on exploiting them for temporary benefit. According to the new figures, the outdoor industry is growing at 3.8 percent, much faster than the overall national economy at 2.8 percent. This economic share will continue to grow for the foreseeable future, even as the coal companies Trump favors diminish further every year.

Hikers approach the Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch inside of Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

That’s why his and some other Republicans’ needless antagonism of the industry is so puzzling. Last year, Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke launched a review of national monuments with an eye to shrinking or reorganizing any they thought needed reform. This review, plagued by ill-defined metrics and a lack of public input, culminated in December with Trump’s legally dubious shrinking of two monuments in Utah, one of which (Grand Staircase-Escalante) was established in 1996 by President Bill Clinton and has gained iconic status as a premier Western recreation site. These much-loved places may not even be the last on the chopping block. 

Even before Trump’s move was final, Utah’s Gov. Gary Herbert and Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Rob Bishop, all Republicans, signaled their full support for slashing the monuments, despite the black eye it gave the state and the inevitable drop in revenue it would entail. The consequences of this self-injury have been dramatic.

For two decades, outdoor companies held their twice-yearly Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City. Thanks to the monuments fiasco, the industry last year moved the lucrative event to Denver. Republican attacks on public lands were a determining factor.

The figures are in from January’s relocated winter show, which kicked off a newly expanded thrice-yearly program. According to Emerald Expositions, the trade show’s operator, Denver is expected to see $110 million in revenue this year alone. Utah is not likely to see a dime of that money. 

This economic power has increased the industry’s awareness of its own political voice. In October, in a sign of unity that should alarm Republican conservation skeptics, the leaders of more than 350 outdoor companies — including major labels like REI, North Face, Patagonia and First Lite — sent Trump a letter urging him not just to respect America’s conservation heritage but to “keep current protections in place for our public lands and waters.” It was an eminently reasonable request; Trump seems to have ignored it.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/50.5/public-lands-the-danger-of-local-hands-on-public-lands]

This trend is much bigger than the two monuments, and it’s going to continue. Rather than celebrating federally protected lands as the much-beloved public resources they are, some Republicans in Washington have fallen into the habit of describing them as an insult to local control. They refuse to renew popular programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, they reject the creation of overdue national monuments near the Grand Canyon and elsewhere, and they talk in nearly apocalyptic terms about the need to rewrite universally supported laws like the Antiquities Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

The outdoor industry isn’t a political entity; it’s a business like any other. It’s also a growing part of our national economic future. To my Republican friends, I say with all sincerity: Alienating outdoor industry leaders is not in your best interest.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].