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Know the West

Speak up, ‘quiet recreationists’


At long last, the good people who make our beloved backpacking tents and climbing ropes and kayaks have taken some responsibility for helping us trample freely about the Western wilds.

In May, Peter Metcalf, co-founder of the climbing-gear company, Black Diamond, gave Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt an ultimatum. Leavitt had just signed deals stripping 2.6 million acres of federal land of wilderness protection, and paving the way for roads across many more. Metcalf, a board member of the Outdoor Industry Association, told the governor he could either stop undermining wilderness protection, or lose the Outdoor Retailer Show, which accounts for about 10 percent of Salt Lake City’s convention business.

Land-lovers everywhere gave a great whoop of glee. It was exciting, and not just because big business was taking a stand for what’s Good and Right, for a change. It was invigorating because wilderness haters everywhere got a taste of their own medicine. Miners, wise-users, off-roaders and some ranchers have long railed against wilderness. Backed by powerful myths, and even stronger business interests, they’ve stonewalled wilderness protection for decades.

Along comes Metcalf, and suddenly wilderness advocates have an economic card to play. In short order, Salt Lake business leaders were down on bended knee, begging the O.R. Show to stay, while Metcalf landed a personal meeting with Gov. Leavitt. There will be more meetings later this summer, and it looks like we might see some movement in one of the West’s most divisive land fights — all thanks to us “quiet recreationists” and our dollars, which gave Metcalf a leg to stand on.

Peter Metcalf and the Outdoor Industry Association show 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 Southern Utah wilderness. But it 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 off-roaders.

The O.R. Show illustrates that we “quiet 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. As Robyn Morrison’s cover story in this issue shows, however, we’ve also become a destructive force on the land. 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 land protection, even if sometimes it means we have to leave our mountain bikes and climbing bolts at home. 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 too busy having our fun to pay any heed.