In a new home, the OR Show flexes its political muscle

As the outdoor industry ramps up its advocacy, it faces tough questions from Indigenous recreators.

  • Scenes from the Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show, from its new site in Denver: Colorful apparel at the Outdoor Research booth.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • A woman tries a sample at the GU Energy Labs booth.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • Saxx men’s briefs come in designs featuring coral snakes and mountain sunset.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
  • Skis at the Sego Ski Co. booth.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News

One gray Saturday morning at the end of January, thousands of people filled three cavernous floors of the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver. The crowds had come for the Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show (dubbed the OR Show), a massive four-day gear and clothing expo for winter-related activities.

Though actual snow was in short supply, the excitement level was high. This year marked a turning point in the OR Show’s history: For the first time in 20 years, the biannual event, which also takes place in the summer, was not held in Salt Lake City. In 2017, the show’s organizers announced they were leaving Utah to protest the efforts by the state’s politicians to reduce Bears Ears National Monument, which protected both popular recreation areas and land that was important to many Native American tribes.

A state where public lands enjoy broad political support, Colorado was happy to welcome the trade show instead — along with the roughly $45 million it brings annually.

“I just think it’s thrilling not only that (the Outdoor Retailer show) is here, but that they did it as a statement,” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet told a group of outdoor-focused small-business owners who’d come for the trade show.

For brands like Patagonia and The North Face, the move to Denver exemplified the industry’s growing advocacy movement, especially around public lands. Backed by their sizeable $887 billion economic impact, gear-makers and consumers alike are flexing their muscles on issues they care about, confident that getting more people outside — equipped with Gore-Tex jackets and carbon-fiber skis — can have a social benefit, too. But their message is missing some important voices: namely, the Native peoples who lived on, protected and depended on those same lands thousands of years before modern hikers discovered them.

A current of slightly self-congratulatory excitement buzzed through the convention center. Outdoor Research, a clothing maker, sold a series of hand-painted wooden boards by Colorado artist Sarah Virginia Uhl, with all proceeds benefitting public lands. Others, like Parajumpers, a luxury outdoor apparel brand based in Vail, seemed happy to be there for more mundane reasons.

“The move to Denver was great for us specifically,” Barry Levinson, the marketing head for Parajumpers’ North American distributor, told me, as I struggled to operate the booth’s free espresso machine. Compared to Salt Lake City, he said, Denver is a lot closer to Vail. Plus, the downtown “has a lot more going on.”

In the back corner of the convention center, nestled among the hundreds of vendor booths, an audience had assembled for a panel discussion titled “Indigenous Connections: Re-envisioning Recreation and Public Lands Preservation to Incorporate First Nation Values and Traditions,” beneath a giant sign from one of the venue’s sponsors, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

The mood at the panel, however, felt somewhat less celebratory than its surroundings. Moderator Annette McGivney, the Southwest editor for Backpacker Magazine, asked what role Indigenous people should play in protecting public lands.

“I’m not promoting outdoor recreation,” said Jolie Varela, a citizen of the Paiute and Tule River Yokut Tribes and the founder of Indigenous Women Hike, a group of Native American women. This summer, they plan to walk 210 miles from Cottonwood Pass to Yosemite Valley, following their ancestral trade routes on what is now known as the John Muir Trail.

Before Yosemite Valley became a renowned rock-climbing destination, Varela recalled, her ancestors were forced out of the area — yet another episode in the violent history of displacement of Native people across the West, this time in the service of “wilderness preservation.”

John Muir himself wrote disparagingly of the Paiute people he encountered in his travels through the valley that eventually became Yosemite National Park. “Somehow they seemed to have no right place in the landscape,” he wrote, “and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.”

As she spoke, Varela pointed out that very few of the climbers she’d met in Yosemite seemed aware that their favorite playground used to have so-called “Native zoos,” in which Indigenous peoples were displayed as novelties to tourists. “Sometimes, I’m the only one who knows that history,” she said.

The mostly white audience stood and listened in awkward silence, while nearby vendors tried to lure people to their booths with free candy and other product samples.

In recent years, the outdoor industry has sought to fashion itself around a kind of benevolent consumerism, appealing to its customers’ progressive values as well as its own bottom line. On Black Friday, many brands encourage people to #OptOutside instead of shopping, while others donate a percentage of their profits to environmental causes, including the defense of public lands.

For many companies, California-based outdoor clothing giant Patagonia is the ultimate proof that this kind of advocacy also makes good business sense. Ever since Patagonia’s co-founder, Yvon Chouinard, described himself as a “reluctant businessman,” the company has made environmental and labor advocacy go hand-in-hand with profit-making.

“The way he justified being a businessman was to give back to the planet,” Corley Kenna, Patagonia’s director of global communications and PR, told me as we stood inside the company’s booth, surrounded by racks of Patagonia’s latest high-tech apparel and its new line of sustainably sourced food items, “Patagonia Provisions.” Today, Patagonia’s environmental grant program is bigger than ever, with the company giving away almost $90 million to grassroots organizations — almost a tenth of its nearly $1 billion in revenues. Meanwhile, Patagonia’s profits have quadrupled since 2009, and its annual growth rate has jumped to 14 percent.

It was Patagonia, too, that led the charge in boycotting the Outdoor Retailer show last February after Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill calling for Bears Ears National Monument to be rescinded. Other companies followed suit, including Canada-based Arc’teryx and Polartec, and when Herbert refused to abandon his fight against the monument, the show’s organizers decided to part ways with Salt Lake City, too.

Since then, Patagonia has stepped up its game. (Full disclosure: High Country News receives advertising money from Patagonia as well as annual donations from its founder, Yvon Chouinard.) For the first time in the company’s 45-year history, it has felt compelled to take serious action: suing the administration over its rollback of national monuments and running television ads reminding people that public lands belong to everyone.

“We’re lucky to be in an industry that’s taking this on,” Kenna told me.

Over at the booth for GU, an energy gel maker, a celebration was underway for the company’s 25th anniversary. Brian Gillis, its marketing communications manager, handed out commemorative birthday cake-flavored energy gels.

Gillis, bearded and wearing a Patagonia jacket, told me about his company’s charitable giving foundation, “GU Gives,” which supports about 100 organizations through grants and product donations. After boycotting the last Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, GU donated the money instead to the Conservation Alliance.

“I was worried that it would just look like a marketing tactic,” Gillis admitted, speaking of GU’s public-lands initiatives. But after the company took a group of employees and GU-sponsored athletes to Bears Ears last year, he felt reassured. They visited the Canyon Discovery Center (formerly the Four Corners School) in Monticello, Utah, and biked around the monument for a few days. The experience, he said, helped the rest of the company understand “why we felt a need to take a stand on this issue.”

And yet, despite all the outdoor industry’s idealistic talk, something still seemed to be missing, as far as the Native American panelists were concerned.

“We all grew up in sheep camp — herding sheep — but rock climbing was such a foreign concept on Navajo Nation,” said Aaron Mike, a member of the Navajo Nation and founder of Pangaea Mountain Guides. Native people often view places like Bears Ears differently from non-Natives, he explained. “It’s not just a venue for outdoor recreation — it’s our home.”

When I brought this up with Corley Kenna, she acknowledged that outdoor recreation “is a very white industry.” But Patagonia is trying to reverse that trend, she said, by bringing Native voices to the forefront of its public-land activism. Willie Grayeyes — chair of the Utah Diné Bikéyah, an all-Native nonprofit focused on protecting Bears Ears — would be giving a presentation about the importance of Bears Ears in Patagonia’s Salt Lake City store.

Regardless, Indigenous peoples often struggle to feel at home in the privileged world of $190 lift tickets and $500 ski jackets. “A lot of Native women feel self-conscious about not having all the right gear,” said Varela.

Still, the main reason you won’t find Varela wearing many of the brands on offer at the trade show is less a practical matter than a philosophical one — one that speaks volumes about today’s outdoor recreation culture. At the end of the panel, someone in the audience raised his hand: Dustin Martin, member of the Navajo Nation and director of a group called Wings of America, which aims to empower Indigenous youth through running. He applauded the industry’s efforts to get more Native people involved in outdoor recreation, but wondered how far those efforts will go if they can’t afford a plane ticket to Aspen and a closetful of gear.

“The way that we Native people recreate is often not the way white people recreate,” Martin explained to the mostly white crowd, who were clad in outdoor-chic flannel and expensive down coats. “We don’t need a Klean Kanteen and a super-fancy sleeping bag.”

Correspondent Sarah Tory lives in Paonia, Colorado. In between writing assignments, she is often climbing, running, skiing — and sometimes Instagramming — in the Elk Mountains. 

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