It’s time for ‘quiet recreationists’ to speak up

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

In May, leaders of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) gave Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt an ultimatum. Leavitt had just signed deals stripping temporary wilderness protection from 2.6 million acres of federal land, and paving the way for roads across many more. Association representative Peter Metcalf, co-founder of the climbing-gear company, Black Diamond, told the governor he could either stop undermining wilderness or lose the Outdoor Retailer Show, a twice-a-year gear-fest that injects Salt Lake City’s economy with an estimated $24 million annually.

Land-lovers everywhere gave a great whoop of glee. It was exciting, and not just because big business was taking a stand for land protection, rather than development. It was invigorating because wilderness haters got a taste of their own medicine. Miners, off-road vehicle users and some ranchers have long railed against wilderness designation. Backed by powerful myths such as the Marlboro Man, and even stronger business interests -- Andalex Resources Inc., for example, which fought for years to dig coal from Southern Utah’s Kaiparowits Plateau -- they’ve stonewalled wilderness protection for decades.

Along comes the Outdoor Industry Association, and suddenly wilderness advocates have big bucks to back up their cause. In short order, Salt Lake business leaders were down on bended knee, begging the group to keep its gear show in town. Metcalf and OIA President Frank Hugelmeyer, meanwhile, landed a string of personal meetings with Gov. Leavitt.

The outcome of these meetings will be announced at the Outdoor Retailer Show, which comes to Salt Lake this week. Leavitt has indicated he’s willing to support some protection for land that has sat in "wilderness-study area" limbo for years. So we may see some movement in one of the West’s most divisive land fights -- all thanks to "quiet recreationists" and our dollars giving the outdoor recreation industry a leg to stand on.

But slow down, fellow fun hogs. Don’t go patting yourselves on the back, yet.

Metcalf, Hugelmeyer and the Outdoor Industry Association 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 wilderness. But the story 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.’

Instead of using the big national gear show to rub wilderness-haters’ noses in it, we should take this opportunity to look in the mirror. The Salt Lake gathering illustrates that unmotorized 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. At the same time, our visits to public lands have also become a destructive force.

Millions of us flock to the mountains and deserts each year to hike, bike, float and climb. We trample the trails, silt up the streams and terrorize the wildlife and each other. Even rock climbers -- lighter on their feet than any hiker or horseback rider -- do damage. Scientists have long known that climbers can scare eagles and falcons away from their nests, but new studies show they also elbow out a host of other sensitive wildlife, ranging from plants to tiny snails.

But rather than speaking with a unified voice for the protection of wild lands, we too often bicker among ourselves over who does the most damage, and what toys should be allowed where. Some mountain bikers, for example, can’t find it in their hearts to support wilderness protection because bikes are outlawed in wilderness areas. Meanwhile, it’s left to shoestring nonprofit groups and industry leaders such as Peter Metcalf and Frank Hugelmeyer to fight the uphill battle for wilderness.

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 public-land protection, even if it means we can’t bring every toy to every corner of the backcountry. 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 outdoors having our fun.

Greg Hanscom is editor of High Country News and a contributor to Writers on the Range ([email protected]) in Paonia, Colorado.

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