Bear’s Ears: The Aftermath
The Outdoor Retailer show was a materialistic tour de force for we Utahns who lean a little granola. Wandering the cavernous interior of the Salt Palace, one could spend hours entering product lotteries, eating Clif Bar samples, and window-shopping (or getting a screaming deal on) the latest outdoor gear.
Those of us fortunate enough to “work” for one of Utah’s participating businesses got a special badge granting us access to this temple of consumerism. I, for one, looked forward to the show each year as the summer ripened. Now, Outdoor Retailer has left our fair state, and all because of a kerfuffle over a Utah landmark known as Bear’s Ears National Monument.
It’s Trump vs. The Environment
On December 28, 2016, then-President Barack Obama proclaimed some 1.4 million acres in Southeastern Utah as Bears Ears National Monument (BENM). Utah Republicans decried the move as federal overreach. Native American tribes local to the monument—as well as the Whole-Foods-eating, REI-shopping crowd—applauded it as a necessary preservation of a priceless treasure.
Utah Republicans, led by Utah Governor Gary Herbert, promptly took action to have the monument undone. Supporting them were various industrial interests (portions of the area contain quantities of coal, oil, and uranium). After the election of President Donald Trump, the Utah legislature drafted a petition to rescind Obama’s proclamation.
The Outdoor Industry Retaliates
The reaction of the outdoor industry was swift and unequivocal: Utah’s leadership had shown itself a foe to the outdoors as well as to the industry focused on preserving the outdoors. Patagonia—a company that, according to The New York Times, “has been unapologetically political since the 1970s”—led the charge, with op-eds condemning what they saw as Governor Herbert’s craven subservience to monied interests. The Governor and other state leaders, in turn, viewed the preservation coalition as being unwilling to compromise, overly idealistic, and too beholden to an environmentalist ideology to fully grasp the realities of the situation.
““Patagonia and hundreds of other companies spend gobs of money to show our latest products at the Outdoor Retailer show. The whole thing is a cash cow for Salt Lake City.” – Yvon Chouinard | Founder | Patagonia
In other words, it was the same-old, same-old: environmentalism versus the economy. Except—in a new twist on an old refrain—this time there were big economic incentives aligned with the preservation camp.
On January 11, 2017, Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder, published an article titled “The Outdoor Industry Loves Utah; Does Utah Love The Outdoor Industry?” on his company’s blog. “Every January and August,” Mr. Chouinard says in the article, “Patagonia and hundreds of other companies spend gobs of money to show our latest products at the Outdoor Retailer show. The whole thing is a cash cow for Salt Lake City.”
Mr. Chouinard claims that “the outdoor industry creates three times the amount of jobs than the fossil fuels industry,” adding that “you’d think politicians in Utah would bend over backward to make us feel welcome.” He then issued an ultimatum: “If Governor Herbert doesn’t need us, we can find a more welcoming home… Patagonia’s choice to return for future [Outdoor Retailer] shows will depend on the Governor’s actions.”
Following Patagonia’s lead, most of the companies represented at Outdoor Retailer signed “An Open Letter: Together We Can Defend Our Public Lands,” dated January 16, 2017. The list of more than 200 corporate signatories included such industry stalwarts as Black Diamond Equipment, Columbia Sportswear, Keen, L.L. Bean, NRS, prAna, The North Face, and Wolverine Worldwide. Addressed to “our elected officials and those who value America’s great outdoors,” the letter highlights the more than $650 billion in which the outdoor industry contributes to the US economy annually, the $80 billion in tax revenue, and the employment of more than six million people. Emphasizing that “this is not a red or blue issue,” the letter reinforced the “American right to roam in our public lands.”
According to The Washington Post, the Governor’s Office “felt like we were being presented with an ultimatum” (they were). A last-ditch contentious phone call didn’t do much to relieve the stalemate. Citing “a gross ingratitude,” the Outdoor Retailer show and its constituent companies sent “a clear signal to Utah’s leadership” by pulling the show from the State of Utah. In other words, Governor Herbert declined to “bend over backward,” and the state lost its “cash cow.” The Summer 2017 Outdoor Retailer event was the last one to be held in Utah; Colorado won the bid for subsequent shows.
Utah’s Economy Takes A Hit. Or Does It?
While preparing for this article, I found many sources reluctant to weigh in. From both the public and private sector, folks demurred or outright declined the opportunity to participate, citing a desire to remain “apolitical,” as though having one’s opinion appear in print automatically allied one with either side of the conflict. Understandable, given the polarized political climate.
I should note that I was planning to include the perspective of the Governor’s Office in this article. Despite providing considerable lead time, their spokesperson was unable to respond to my written questions by the editorial deadline. Speaking to Utah businesses, however, I encountered a variety of perspectives ranging from “meh” to downright apocalyptic in their assessment of the toll inflicted on the Utah economy by the loss of Outdoor Retailer. Most of these people wanted to be left out of this article, so I shan’t mention them all by name.
Per utahpolicy.com, “The twice-a-year show brought 40,000 visitors and $45 million of economic impact to the state every year.” A survey by the same site showed that—surprise!—a majority of Republicans downplayed the loss, rating it as negligible or “low impact” while Democrats tended to rate it as “high impact.” Scott Beck, executive director of Visit Salt Lake, estimated in 2016 that the event had, over its 20 years of coming to the state, brought “$565 million in delegate spending and $52 million in taxes for local, county, and state governments.”
The numbers are absolutely huge. It’s easy to see why one camp views the loss as catastrophic. An anonymous contributor best summarizes the opposing perspective to the above-referenced survey: “Utah’s economy is massive compared to this show… a small fraction of a tenth of one percent.” Indeed, the state’s GDP came in at $136 billion in 2016, so $45 million is indeed minuscule as a percentage of overall economic output. But is that the right metric? $45 million annually is still a lot of money. Just ask the hotel industry.
Forty thousand people per year, split between Outdoor Retailer’s summer and winter markets, will occupy a lot of beds. And eat a lot of food. Restaurants, food trucks, caterers, hotels, motels, individual Airbnb-ers, and other hospitality providers will all feel the pinch—especially if they’ve built the seasonal glut into their revenue projections. Similarly, taxi drivers—as well as drivers for Uber and Lyft—will miss the seasonal business. When it comes to drawing crowds, can something else replace Outdoor Retailer? Conceivably. Will it? In the short term, it’s not going to happen.
And then there’s the outdoor industry. The loss of the Outdoor Retailer Show hits Utah’s gear companies in a way that may not be apparent to most: the opportunity cost for meeting vendors and suppliers. “Having the show right here in our backyard was a huge plus,” says Dwight Butler, co-owner of Wasatch Touring. “You know that all your suppliers are going to be there, so you just line your meetings up.” Now, Mr. Butler says, Utah companies get hit with a much higher entry cost to attend the show. “For smaller businesses, it just may not be worth it anymore.”
In an ironic twist, they’ve been selling oodles of Bears Ears T-shirts, says Mr. Butler. “We Stand With Bears Ears. They’ve been flying off the shelves. Literally hundreds of them. Close to a thousand.” Wasatch Touring doesn’t profit from the sale of the shirts, given that “100 percent of the revenue goes to the Stand With Bears Ears organization.” But still—it’s an economic stimulus and we’ll take it.
What If Businesses (And Outdoor Enthusiasts) Don’t Like Us Anymore?
Quantifying missed opportunities is hard. I’ve heard of several that seem to have some validity.
Interbike is a sister event—Emerald Expositions owns both it and Outdoor Retailer—and, according to Mr. Butler, it was very, very close to coming to Salt Lake City. “According to people I know at the Convention Center Bureau, [SLC had the prize in sight]. Then, when [Interbike] heard what was going on, they pulled the plug.” Subsequently, Interbike selected Reno, Nevada as its new home. The show is the largest bike trade show with around 20,000 attendees per year. Did Salt Lake City lose Interbike over the Outdoor Retailer pullout? We know Interbike was shopping for a new location (they were done with Las Vegas), and we know they’re closely connected to Outdoor Retailer via a shared parent company. I’d say this can’t be ruled out as a missed opportunity.
“We won’t let President Trump tear down our heritage. We’re proud to keep fighting will all we’ve got.” – Rose Marcarcio | CEO | Patagonia
Another missed opportunity is the potential for outdoor companies to shun Utah—a la Patagonia. That idea goes something like this: the Outdoor Retailer event brought in tens of thousands of out-of-state outdoors enthusiasts, some of whom fell in love with Utah’s natural beauty and recreational opportunities. As a result, some percentage of those travelers chose Utah as their new home. Being upper-middle-class—hey, they’ve got disposable income for kayaks, mountain bikes, and Yakima ski racks, right?—they also brought dollars. To stretch the case even further, some of those individuals might have held executive positions at one company or another, and, who knows, might have brought new economic lifeblood to Utah. It’s not completely outside the realm of reality.
Conjectural, sure. Both of the above-missed opportunity scenarios are tricky to either prove or disprove. Nevertheless, it’s hard to say with conviction that Utah has or hasn’t forfeited future opportunities that fall within one or both of the scenarios imagined above.
The Battle For Utah’s Reputation Continues
Upon the election of President Donald Trump, the anti-Bears Ears National Monument coalition received an early 2017 Christmas present: reduction of the monument by as much as 80 percent on December 4th of that year. On that same date, Governor Herbert penned an editorial in Utah’s Deseret News, designed to refute “several false narratives” surrounding the Bears Ears controversy. He rebutted five “myths” and positioned himself as committed to both preservations of the outdoors and access to specific reserves of natural resources. “By reducing the BENM to a realistic and manageable size,” he says, “the region can enjoy the sustainable protection it really needs.”
This is not the end, however, for the outdoor industries who were part of the resistance. Patagonia is suing President Trump for executive overreach. Joined in its lawsuit by “the Native American tribes near Bears Ears,” the company posits that presidential power is limited to the creation of protected regions, but not to the undoing of them: an act of Congress would be needed to roll them back. “We won’t let President Trump tear down our heritage,” concludes Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario in her Time Magazine editorial of December 6, 2017. “We’re proud to keep fighting with everything we’ve got.”
Neither side has been swayed by the other, and the controversy continues to rage. The only indisputable facts remain that Bears Ears National Monument is now a whole lot smaller than it used to be, and, as a result, has created consequences for the economy of our state.