How Big Rec chooses its public-lands battles

Outdoor industry giants stood up for Bears Ears. Why won’t they stand up for the Borderlands?

 

Activists with Nuestra Tierra gather at a camping event in New Mexico’s Bootheel. Though there is an active contingent of supporters, public lands at the U.S.-Mexico border have not gained big name backers.

Two years ago, when the Trump administration announced its plans to shrink the newly formed boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, the outdoor recreation industry sprang into action. Lawsuits were filed, op-eds were penned, and the homepage of Patagonia’s website went black, with this message scrawled across its homepage: “The President Stole Your Land.”

Now, at the U.S.-Mexico border, another battle is brewing. In February, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency there, meaning that typical environmental and cultural review were waived on more than 500 acres of public land now slated for border wall construction. As a result, in places like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, saguaros are being ripped from the ground, and tribal nations will lose access to land sacred to them. Once it is built, the wall will sever wildlife habitat between the U.S. and Mexico. Conservationists and activists at the border are tirelessly documenting every development. But lately, they’ve begun asking themselves, “Where is everyone else?”

When it comes to the Borderlands, the fight for public lands looks much different. The land isn’t considered a recreation mecca, and so far it hasn’t been the focus of prominent campaigns by the outdoor recreation industry. As a result, the public lands that hug the southern border don’t reap the benefits of the debate’s most powerful voice: Big Rec. When the recreation industry focuses attention on places like Bears Ears, those landscapes steer the narrative and influence which public lands are considered worth fighting for. 

Border residents who have deep ties to the landscape and its wildlife — but lack the money to buy products from companies like Patagonia, for example — are losing out on that sort of advocacy currency. Access to the outdoors can be expensive. Transportation costs and the increasing price of park passes and outdoor gear make some forms of recreating out of reach for disadvantaged communities. At places like REI, where public-lands advocacy is “very much member-driven, and driven by interests in and around where we do business,” according to Marc Berejka, REI’s director of community and government affairs, that means that certain communities don’t receive as much attention. “We’ve not heard the same amount of outcry for engagement for purposes of creating or sustaining recreational opportunities” when it comes to places like Organ Pipe, Berejka said.

Patagonia operates using similar indicators. “We’ve always taken a grassroots approach to having support in these areas where these things are happening,” said Meghan Sural Wolf, Patagonia’s environmental activism manager, noting that Patagonia’s usual channels hadn’t seen any calls to action recently. Advocacy is not driven solely by consumers, she said, but they do play a big role.

In other words, the outdoor industry relies on an established network to spur advocacy. When its customers are silent about lands at the border, the industry won’t speak up for those landscapes, either. 

Outdoor rec’s consumers are a reflection of the industry itself, and that is problematic for a community that has a longstanding problem with diversity, as Ava Holliday — a founding partner of the Avarna Group, a leader in developing inclusion and equity within the industry — told Outside Magazine last year. This inclusion problem extends to outreach and advertising, too. As a result, the industry has been seen as a homogenously white industry that has failed to market to, or represent, a more diverse group of people. That is changing, though. In early 2019, REI signed on to an outdoor equity fund in New Mexico to expand access to the outdoors to under-represented communities. The company has also made diversity a priority in its hiring process. Still, advocates say that progress is slow. (Disclaimer: Both Patagonia and REI financially support High Country News.)

Ray Trejo and Angel Peña’s daughter, Gabby, at a border land campout organized by Peña. Trejo gave nature tours at the campout.

In the meantime, the border’s public lands are on a tight deadline. Take Hidalgo County in New Mexico, for example, which is 58% Hispanic. Over 200 acres of land there and in neighboring Luna County have been ceded to the federal government for border wall construction. Nearly 30% of the population lives below the poverty line. “One of the last resources they have is this amazing Chihuahuan Desert landscape,” said Angel Peña, the president of the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, a nonprofit. Peña has been working to drum up more support for New Mexico’s Bootheel, a southern chunk of the state that juts into Mexico. Hunting and fishing are popular in the area. “I’m curious if those outdoor retailers don’t see themselves on the ground,” Peña said. “And I’m curious if that doesn’t go both ways. I wonder if the people at the Borderlands don’t look to the Patagonias for help, and that’s why the outdoor rec industry doesn’t feel close to that.” 

José González, the founder of Latino Outdoors, says he understands that recreation companies have to focus their efforts where the money is. Still, he thinks engaging with more diverse communities near the border could help that goal. “At the end of the day, it is still about dollars and selling product. But all of those things are not exclusive,” he said. “It is a missed opportunity to know that border communities can be just like any other communities in relation to public lands.”

Several tribes, including the Tohono O’odham, call the Borderlands home. But while tribal nations saw a swell of protests and had allies at Bears Ears, the Tohono O’odham Nation has received no industry support. The U.S.-Mexico border divides the tribe’s territory, and now the community is poised to lose access to places like Organ Pipe’s Quitobaquito Springs, where the tribe conducts an annual salt pilgrimage. “It would cause a sacred journey to cease on its traditional route that has been (going on) for many, many years,” Verlon Jose, governor of the Traditional O’odham Leaders, told reporters in July. And, in September, The Washington Post obtained a National Park Service report that stated that 22 archaeological sites would be endangered by wall construction — including burial sites.

“It is kind of shocking. People have this idea that there is a huge resistance movement (at the border), and in reality it is just a few people,” said Laiken Jordahl, a Borderlands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity. “You look at all of the outpouring of support for Bears Ears, and Patagonia is involved and REI is stepping up. It is so different when it comes to the Borderlands.”

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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