Public Lands: Our Industry, Our Issue, Our Fight

You can't defend what you don't understand, and this issue is complicated. This in-depth year-long series will unravel the complex network of people, places, events, interests and funding mechanisms that make outdoor recreation possible for all Americans.

By Scott Willoughby March 15, 2018

Why the future of the outdoor industry depends on public lands and waters

“They viewed us as pushovers,” says Black Diamond Equipment founder Peter Metcalf. He is referring, of course, to Utah’s policymakers and the well-documented national monument saga that came to a head last year and eventually precipitated the Outdoor Retailer move from Salt Lake City to Denver. Metcalf brought Black Diamond to Utah back in 1990 and has been very active in state and federal land policy work ever since. He still lives in Salt Lake City.

Listen to Metcalf and Casey Sheahan talk about why public land advocacy is so important for outdoor businesses.

 

That Utah’s most powerful elected officials supported the controversial reduction in protection for more than 2 million acres of culturally significant public lands came as no surprise. From the governor’s mansion to Capitol Hill, such efforts continue the state’s long history of attacks against public lands management and funding. Utah Congressman Rob Bishop, chairman of the powerful House Natural Resource Committee, routinely attempts to strip away the presidential authority to designate national monuments under the Antiquities Act. Bishop also co-founded the Federal Lands Action Group with Utah Congressman Chris Stewart in order to create the legislative framework to turn America’s public lands over to states and private interests. Governor Gary Herbert and Utah Senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch stand by his side. And they were further emboldened by President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “They thought, ‘Oh, they’ll make some noise, and go their merry way. They’re lazy.’ I think they’re still shocked that we called them on it and moved the show,” says Metcalf. “It took a lot to do this. But it was a seminal moment. We stood up [for America’s public lands and waters], and look at us now.”

Look at us, indeed. Just more than a year after that spark was ignited, the outdoor industry has galvanized as a political and economic fireball rolling forward with a new sense of unity and strength, spurred by a combination of unified values, economic muscle (2 percent of the national GDP, $887 billion in consumer spending and 7.6 million direct American jobs) and unprecedented member engagement. Those numbers were enough to convince the federal government to recognize outdoor recreation as an official sector of the United States economy, bigger than agriculture, oil and gas extraction and all other types of mining.

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But put the numbers aside and leave balance sheets out of the conversation. Public lands and waters have been owned and shared equally by all Americans for more than a century. Should the management of those lands and waters be transferred, the uniquely American heritage of public access to outdoor recreation erodes. And that makes attempts to weaken bedrock legislation like the Antiquities Act and slash critical funding mechanisms like the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) all the more dire.

What the anti-public lands contingent failed to calculate is the outdoor industry’s newfound clout. They may have just poked the bear.

The Outdoor Industry Association has vowed to hold members of Congress accountable on public lands and waters issues through a scorecard ranking each of them on their positions and a coinciding “Vote the Outdoors” education program launching prior to the 2018 midterm elections.

The energy and enthusiasm around public lands policy in the past year has led to increased national attention on the issue and the outdoor industry itself. The profile of the industry has been raised to the point where policymakers are taking notice. Where industry representatives once struggled to be heard in Washington, they are now meeting with senior advisors to the president and members of Congress.

This Land Is Your Land march on the Utah state capitol in summer 2017 was our industry’s show of strength and unity for public lands.

“I think the real watershed moment was the engagement of the industry and our willingness to put our values on display and to make business decisions in line with those values,” OIA Executive Director Amy Roberts said. “We needed to have a unified industry, and once the decision to move to Denver was announced and the monument protections were rolled back, we saw that the industry was united in our disappointment. We’ve never seen a response to an action alert as big as when President Trump went to Utah in December. Almost every member of Congress heard from one of our member companies within a matter of days. A handful of brands have really stepped up in terms of engaging their consumers, and others are leaning in in different ways.”

Just one of the many creative signs declaring support for public lands at the march in Utah.

The Trump administration’s current budget proposal aims to reduce funding for the Department of Interior by more than $2 billion, or 16.8 percent compared to 2017 levels. The Forest Service is slated for reductions of up to $1 billion and the LWCF, which uses royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to conserve public lands and expand public access, could be reduced by 98 percent, from $400 million down to $8 million. Such drastic reductions could sound the death knell for already cash-strapped land management agencies.

A short list of the on-the-ground impacts from starving these agencies of critical funds could include more frequent closures of campgrounds and facilities, diminished access to public lands due to road and trail closures, and the inability to acquire new access to public lands and waters. That translates to overcrowding in concentrated areas already facing significant maintenance backlogs. Decreased education and enforcement ability is sure to increase resource degradation, making public lands less inviting and leading to less visitation. If visitation declines, gateway communities lose their biggest revenue streams and the economic uncertainty discourages future investment.

“It’s really a matter of what Congress is putting money behind in the budget,” said OIA Government Affairs Manager Jessica Wahl. “They speak to recreation issues, but it’s time to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to public lands and waters.”

But while Congress decides the budget, Roberts likes to think the outdoor industry ultimately will have the final say.

“I think we have to continue to raise awareness so that when people go to the polls it becomes a voting decision. We’re still playing a lot of defense at the national level, but I think we’re seeing more opportunities to make an impact at the state and local level, especially in rural areas with opportunities to build an economy around outdoor recreation.” -Amy Roberts, OIA executive director

The Outdoor Industry Association has vowed to hold members of Congress accountable on public lands and waters issues through a scorecard ranking each of them on their positions and a coinciding “Vote the Outdoors” education program launching prior to the 2018 midterm elections.

A participant in the Utah march shows off his sign and our industry’s motto that no matter your political persuasion, we all benefit from access to the outdoors.

The first step in that education program is this content series, which will help inform OIA members, consumers and policymakers about the history and impact of public lands and waters. Throughout 2018, in monthly installments, we’ll parse out the who, what, where, when, why and how of public lands and waters and deliver the facts in shareable infographics you can share with your coworkers, friends, family, neighbors and legislators.

Continued consumer engagement through OIA member companies has potential to tip the scales. “I think we have to continue to raise awareness so that when people go to the polls it becomes a voting decision,” Roberts said. “We’re still playing a lot of defense at the national level, but I think we’re seeing more opportunities to make an impact at the state and local level, especially in rural areas with opportunities to build an economy around outdoor recreation.”

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