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Know the West

Report from Outdoor Retailer


The Summer Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City is a gearhead's dream. I wandered through its hundreds upon hundreds of booths on Thursday, Aug. 2 in a breathable waterproof daze, along with 27,000 other people ogling the very latest in toys and accoutrements for every kind of outdoor adventure. The goods on display ranged from cutting edge – stand-up paddleboards, hoodies with built-in headphones, waterproof iPhone cases – to the more traditional backpacks, hiking boots and jackets.

In a hotel meeting room the previous night, scenes of mountain climbing, canoeing and fishing played across a huge screen while dozens of outdoor-gear industry leaders and a stray journalist or two polished off double-chocolate cake and raspberries. We were attending the Thought Leaders dinner hosted by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), representing more than 1,000 gear companies, and the video's message was clear. “Outdoor recreation is not just a way of life,” said the association's president, Frank Hugelmeyer, “it's our business.” The video's final lines were tongue-in-cheek but showed the outdoor industry's intent to claim a seat at the public policy table: “We take on nature's ferocity, and we can take on a few people in suits. And if they don't get it, we'll ask them to step outside.”

But there's a divide in the industry's approach to conservation issues, as we reported in our July 23 cover story, "The Hardest Climb," by Greg Hanscom. Some companies, led by Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond, want the industry to focus on protecting the West's wildest places. But Hugelmeyer and the OIA stress a more inclusive approach; his address following the video talked about creating a "recreation infrastructure" that includes everything from local soccer fields to national parks. Hugelmeyer's “backyard to backcountry” approach seeks common ground among motorized and non-motorized users of all stripes, while Metcalf worries that making the tent too big will result in watered-down public-lands protections.

Metcalf had been planning to use the Outdoor Retailer show to ask Utah's Gov. Gary Herbert to "step outside." Herbert and the state's Republican congressional delegation have been pushing policies that Metcalf and other gear makers view as direct attacks on the public lands essential to their livelihood. But right before the show started, Gov. Herbert met for the first time ever with the OIA board of directors. The board's post-meeting statement contained some pretty clear expectations – they ask the governor to start collaborating with the OIA on a "shared vision" for public land policies within 30 days, and to provide specific recommendations by the time the winter version of the Outdoor Retailer show rolls around. There's a lot at stake for Utah: The OR show is rapidly outgrowing Salt Lake and organizers are discussing moving the $43 million convention to another host city; while the decision is mostly driven by logistical needs, OIA says that the state's "political climate" will be one of the factors.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Herbert, who'd certainly like to keep the OR shows at home, expressed some willingness to listen to the trade group's viewpoint: "We may have some philosophical disagreements over public land management, but I am committed to hearing all sides of the issue," Herbert said.

"I think the governor didn't know what he was stepping into," said Metcalf during an interview at his company's booth on Thursday. "Those (anti-conservation) proposals are out of touch with the mainstream. Now the outdoor industry has challenged him: what is his vision for public lands? Is it favorable to our principles and values?"

For Metcalf, the question remains  - how can he and the outdoor industry most effectively advocate for protecting wilderness and wild rivers? "It's a topic of discussion," he said. "What is the role that OIA is going to take? Will it take a more active role in lobbying for strong, sustainable public lands policy?"

"The issue," he added, "is activating the companies who have already joined OIA to get involved, get off their asses and stop rubber-stamping bad policies." And if they don't, Metcalf said, then perhaps the Conservation Alliance (another, much smaller trade group that supports grassroots conservation projects) should shift its focus to that kind of lobbying instead.

Hugelmeyer, whom I also interviewed Thursday, emphasized advocacy as well – but unlike Metcalf, he wants to leave local and state-level policy battles to gear-industry customers. "We're not going to stop being passionate stewards of the land," he said. "But we can't focus on small fights. Our fights at the federal level are much greater."

I finally stumbled out of the gear show around 7 pm Thursday, too tired to join the gigantic block party in progress near the "New Exhibitors" overflow pavilion. I'd probably walked three or four miles in meandering passes up and down endless aisles of booths. I'd looked longingly at sleek Royalex canoes and handcrafted leather bags, and scored a modest amount of schwag – some stickers, a tube of lip balm, a keychain or two.  My feet were sore, and my shoulders ached from toting my laptop around the show floor all day. I knew exactly how this guy felt, who at 6 pm was napping on a bench in the hallway outside the main hall.

As planning for the winter OR show begins, HCN will keep an eye out to see what approaches Gov. Herbert comes up with and what proposals OIA makes. Some sort of "collaborative policy environment" will eventually emerge; the question is, where will it fall on the Metcalf-Hugelmeyer spectrum? My bet is on the more pragmatic "big tent" approach. That's at least a way to get greater collaboration and buy-in on policies -- but we also need the idealism of people like Metcalf to keep pushing for stronger protections and a higher degree of conservation, lest we turn the West's most cherished public lands into merely playgrounds.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.

Images of OR show and Frank Hugelmeyer courtesy the author