Power play: How outdoor retailers are positioned as a political, economic and social force for change

As the US government backs away from protecting our climate, the outdoor industry is ready to use their newfound power to pick up the slack. Below is a Denver Post article, originally published here.

P.S. look for the shoutout to POW Riders Alliance athletes, Chris Davenport, Gretchen Bleiler, Jake Black, Simi Hamilton, Arielle Gold and Eric Larsen, for their efforts to stop methane venting on public lands!

As the heavyweight Outdoor Retailer trade shows decamp for Colorado, the outdoor industry is wielding a newfound power.

Last month, as the trade show’s attendees wrapped their final stand in Salt Lake City after 20 years, thousands marched supporting public lands. Utah’s position on those lands — urging the federal government to downsize national monuments such as Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante — triggered the departure of Outdoor Retailer. Outdoor Retailer arrives in Denver in January, the first of five biannual gatherings that will establish Colorado as the command post for all things outdoor recreation.

Favoring public lands is an easy motivator. Everyone under the outdoor-recreation tent — a widely diverse lot including sportsmen, paddlers, campers, bikers, skiers, hikers, conservationists, retailers, gear makers and motorized users — can get behind a fight to defend access to well-protected and amply funded national forests, monuments and parks.

The challenge is capturing the growing political, economic and social clout, and maintaining that momentum as the industry emerges as a force for change beyond access and land protection.

“It’s politically safe and risk-free for the outdoor industry to back public-lands protection. But can they make the pivot to climate, which is the overreaching issue and far more important?” said Auden Schendler, the climate activist who directs Aspen Skiing Co.’s industry-leading sustainability efforts. “I don’t think it’s certain they will be able to do that. As I’ve said before, if you don’t solve climate, you can kiss your public lands goodbye.”

The industry is making the effort. More than 100 Colorado outdoor companies — perhaps emboldened by winning Outdoor Retailer — have enlisted in an effort to thwart drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“The Colorado businesses signed onto this letter urge you to hear our business voices, an economic powerhouse in our state estimated in the billions, and not allow any fossil fuel development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” reads the missive sent two weeks ago to Colorado’s delegation in Washington.

A consortium of Colorado outdoor athletes is lobbying Colorado leaders to fight the proposed expansion of the West Elk Mine, where owner Arch Coal hopes to dig up an estimated 17.6 million tons of coal in the Gunnison National Forest. The plan would add 48 methane venting wells to the mine that already ranks as the state’s largest source of methane pollution.

“This is a ripoff to taxpayers who own that methane and a catastrophe for our climate. Coal mines in many countries collect methane and use it to produce energy, but due to lax federal laws, loopholes and subsidies that favor the coal industry, U.S. coal mines operating on public lands can vent methane with no penalty,” reads the July letter from athletes such as Chris Davenport, Gretchen Bleiler, Jake Black, Simi Hamilton, Arielle Gold and Eric Larsen.

As Colorado establishes itself as the outdoor business epicenter, local industry leaders are pushing for the state to become a cradle of political advocacy.

“The outdoor industry overall is waking up to their political voice and platform. This is about so much more than just climate, or public lands. It’s a far deeper testimonial to state-level coalitions coalescing around one of the few remaining bipartisan economies in the country,” said Luis Benitez, the boss of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office who helped land Outdoor Retailer.

But with the Trump administration and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke plowing ahead with a review of national monuments that could result in downsizing swaths of federally protected open spaces, the outdoor industry is not about to ease up on the fight for public lands — the lifeblood of outdoor recreation, inspiring a lifestyle that prods Americans to buy more gear that is essentially researched and developed on those wildlands.

President Donald Trump’s approach toward public lands is “an existential threat,” said Peter Metcalf, the founder of Utah’s Black Diamond Equipment who led the politically charged exodus of Outdoor Retailer from his home state.

“The reality of that threat has united all factions and all tribes,” said Metcalf, pointing to millions of public comments supporting public lands spurred by outdoor companies such as Patagonia and the 6.3 million-member REI co-op. “That’s where we go from here. We are continuing to build the various coalitions and communicate to our elected officials — Republicans and Democrats alike — that Americans really care about well-stewarded, well-protected, properly zoned and properly funded public lands.”

As the federal government backs away from leadership on climate and protecting open spaces for future generations, companies are filling the void. Patagonia is the natural leader, a company that has long been the vigilant guardian of environmental ethics in retail, with campaigns stirring support for climate-change legislation, tearing down dams and wild salmon in addition to its sustainable sourcing and labor strategies. But more companies are following Patagonia’s monkey-wrenching path.

“Where a lack of leadership exists, there are a number of people in the private sector who are willing to step forward,” said Penn Newhard, whose Backbone Media in Carbondale represents dozens of outdoor brands that are forging the new progressive outdoor economy ethos. “These leaders are not only convinced of the generational threat of climate, but the long-term sustainable economic value in recreation and public lands.”

It wasn’t long ago that the outdoor industry tugged on emotions when picking its fights. Support for national parks or clean water sprang from images of campfires, waterfalls and lonely hikes. Today, the industry’s call-to-arms is much more calculated, with dazzling social media movements that certainly include those inspirational landscapes and vistas but are firmly anchored in economics.

Boulder’s Outdoor Industry Association shows that the broad outdoor industry accounts for $887 billion in annual consumer spending and supports 7.6 million jobs, generating almost $125 billion in federal, state and local taxes.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis this year will compile the outdoor recreation industry’s contributions to the nation’s gross domestic product, which will clearly outline the economic engine behind outdoor recreation. The results of that analysis will fuel the political machine rumbling behind outdoor play.

“Any hope of driving real change in politics, especially at the federal level, relies on brands coming together to flex their collective economic muscles,” said Mike Lewis, Boulder-based Zeal Optics’ head of brand activation and digital strategy, a position that, in itself, reveals the discerning direction of today’s progressive outdoor brands. “Simply playing to people’s emotions doesn’t work on our larger scale, and the industry is becoming much savvier in a time that truly could be a watershed moment in the divestment of public lands.”