These days it’s easy to feel gloomy about the state of earth’s ecosystem. The climate continues to change, causing a host of issues, from more catastrophic weather and wildfires to the increased acidification of our oceans. Meanwhile, we have a president actively working to erode hard-won ecological protections. So it was a surprise to many when, in February, there was a huge win for the conservation community: the Natural Resources Management Act sailed through Congress and was signed into law, creating some 1.3 million acres of wilderness and six new national-park units and reauthorizing the venerable Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has funneled billions of dollars into conservation projects.
We wondered what other recent good news stories may have been buried under the constant negative reports and commentary. It turns out, there have been a few things to celebrate recently.
New Wilderness Was Created in 2018
New tracts of wilderness in Tennessee and Arkansas received almost no media coverage after they were created in 2018. The Tennessee Wilderness Act protected 20,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest, and the Flatside Wilderness Enhancement Act added 640 acres to the popular 9,541-acre Flatside Wilderness near Little Rock. What’s surprising is that both were created in staunchly Republican states, while Congress was still under Republican control, and were championed by Republican lawmakers—Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander and Arkansas representative Rich Hill, respectively.
Where was the pushback to wilderness we are so accustomed to seeing from Republicans, like the Sagebrush Rebellion battles that have raged in Utah, Oregon, and Montana? According to Anders Reynolds, a policy officer with Pew Charitable Trusts, wilderness east of the Rockies is a different issue. “I think this demonstrates that, in the South, wilderness transcends political affiliation,” he says. “In the South, it’s a local issue, not a political one.”
Courts Are Overturning Trump’s Attempts to Weaken Environmental Protections
On April 19, a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration couldn’t simply sidestep an Obama-era moratorium on selling coal dug from federal lands. In response to a lawsuit from four states and a host of environmental groups, a judge ruled that the government must consider the environmental impacts of coal mined on federal lands. The Trump administration had reversed the Obama-era moratorium but failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which requires government agencies to assess environmental impacts of any project. Therefore, before more coal mining can occur on public lands, the government will have to negotiate with the case’s plaintiffs.
It’s another in a series of defeats for the Trump administration’s attempts to weaken environmental protections, says Jayni Hein of the New York University School of Law. “They’ve won only two of 39 environmental-regulation cases,” she says. “That’s not a good track record.” The reason? “They are rushing in their efforts to overturn Obama-era actions, and courts are finding that they aren’t doing enough to comply with bedrock environmental and administrative laws,” Hein says.
Another significant example was a ruling in March that blocked the Trump administration’s efforts to expand offshore drilling in Alaska and off the northeastern coast. In that case, the Trump administration tried to overturn a moratorium on drilling put in place to protect rare and endangered species, like polar bears and some deep-water corals in the Atlantic, but the judge found that the president had no power to lift the moratorium, which was based on the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953. “This bodes well for upcoming legal actions to protect national monuments,” Hein says.
The Upshot: The Trump administration’s decision to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments, both created using the Antiquities Act, may not stand up in court.
Single-Use Plastics Are Being Phased Out More Rapidly
Campaigns against the use of plastic strawshave been getting a lot of attention lately, partly thanks to the clownish reactions of congressman Devin Nunes (R-California), who decried the “straw police” challenging his need for a straw to drink water. “The more attention people pay to straws, the better,” says Trent Hodges, plastic-pollution manager for the Surfrider Foundation. “Straws are an unnecessary habit. We use them to drink our smoothie, never thinking, This piece of plastic will be here long after I am dead.” Straws and plastic bags,88 pounds of which were found inside a dead whale’s stomach this year in the Philippines, are famously awful for marine life. An estimated 18 billion pounds of plastic waste enters the world’s oceans each year. Plastic particles are showing up in rivers worldwide and entering the human food chain.
The good news, says Hodges, is that people are starting to take notice and do something about it. In 2018, Surfrider counted a record 51 plastic-pollution-related legislative victories worldwide—laws restricting single-use plastics. That doesn’t even include decisions last year by McDonald’s and Pepsi to require all their packaging be recyclable or biodegradable by 2025, and a similar effort by Walmart. The biggest victory, Hodges says, was the European Union’s plastics-ban agreement, which will outlaw ten separate products in the 500-million-person EU, from straws to plastic cutlery to plastic Q-tip sticks.
It was another great year for fans of free-flowing rivers, as 82 dams were removed across the country in 2018. The roll included obsolete dams in 18 states, California topping the list with 35. Removing dams helps restore native fish habitat and improves the ecological health of riparian systems, our most biologically productive zones.
Less dramatically, but probably more significant, was the agreement between seven western states to a drought contingency plan for the Colorado River. The Colorado is famously overapportioned—many years not enough water flows into it to satisfy the claims of water-rights holders. With climate models overwhelmingly pointing to a drier future, it was critical to get the states—Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California—to agree to allow farmers, cities, and other water users to voluntarily cut back their water usage to reduce water-supply risk. The system has traditionally been use it or lose it, so there was no incentive for a farmer to let water go downstream, even if it wasn’t needed. Now they can, says Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program, “which means there’s a possibility that water delivery could be timed for ecological or recreational benefit.” Such a system is common sense,but the politics of water rights usually isn’t.“Getting the states to agree on this was a monumental victory for the river,” Rice says. Had the effort failed, it could have meant more dams being built so states could protect their water. “When people fight over water, river health always loses first,” he says.
The Upshot: The Colorado River agreement provides inspiration for the Bay Delta Plan Agreement process in California. A broad swath of river stakeholders are wrangling with improving the health of the Sacramento and San Joaquin River deltas, which encompass 40 percent of the state’s water in more than 120 rivers and streams and serve as critical habitat for several endangered and threatened species.
Kevin Jorgensen understands that a single experience climbing can change a life. The veteran of the famous 2015 free ascent of Yosemite’s Dawn Wall with Tommy Caldwell discovered rock climbing at an outdoor fair at age nine. He was hooked, he says, and it “helped me build confidence as an awkward teenager, find community, and create a life with my passion.” The problem, he says, is that if a kid is never invited to a birthday party at a climbing gym, or doesn’t live near one, they may never get the chance at that potentially life-changing experience. Jorgensen says he “wants to take luck out of the equation for as many as a million kids by putting climbing in front of them wherever they live.”
Today, Jorgensen is much closer to that goal. 1Climb, the organization he cofounded with climber and gym owner Dan Chancellor in 2010 to foster youth climbing, announced that Adidas Outdoor, parent company of FiveTen shoes, is donating $1 million to build climbing walls in ten Boys and Girls Clubs (a nonprofit that “inspires and enables” underserved youth through various programs and opportunities) around the country. The gift matches the investment made this year by the North Face, whose Walls Are Made for Climbing project allocated $1 million to build climbing boulders in several urban parks, including Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, and New York City. The 1Climb Boys and Girls Club facilities will be completed by 2020 and join three others that 1Climb has already built in Saint Louis, Missouri,Los Angeles, and Sonoma, California.
The Boys and Girls Club relationship with 1Climb dates to 2010, when Jorgensen spearheaded the construction of a climbing wall at the Sonoma club. “Boys and Girls Clubs are the gold standard for youth recreation nonprofits,” says Jorgensen. “They have a proven track record working with the kids we want to reach. That they serve 4.5 million kids a year in thousands of locations makes my goal of getting one million kids climbing seem pretty feasible.”
Each of the new climbing walls will be between 500 and 800 square feet and feature auto belays, as well as shoes from FiveTen. Just as important though, Jorgensen says, is that the clubs receiving climbing walls will each be situated within 15 minutes of an already existing climbing gym. In a formula established in 1Climb’s Saint Louis and L.A. projects, those gyms will train Boys and Girls Club staff in climbing skillsand should maintain a relationship with the budding climbers. “We don’t want to just give them a gym and say, Have fun,” Jorgensen says. “We want the partner gym to be a gateway to the climbing community.”
So far the relationship has worked well for the Boyle Heights Boys and Girls Club in L.A. and the nearby LA Boulders climbing gym. Established in 2018, the Boyle Heights club’s wall is now part of the organization’s standard programming and has been used by at least 200 kids, says Patricia Siqueiros, the club’s executive director. “The kids love the climbing wall,” she says. Between climbing at the club and monthly field trips to LA Boulders, “it’s allowing them to envision a world beyond their immediate surroundings, which can be pretty limiting.”
Says Holly Rock, manager of LA Boulders, “Our staff gets really excited to work with the kids. They all remember what climbing did for them when they first started.”
She describes a March Family Night at the Boyle Heights Boys and Girls Club climbing wall, and the 65 participants—kids, siblings, parents—eating tacos and listening to a DJ while kids sprinted up and down the wall. Jorgensen himself was in attendance, talking adventure and spotting budding climbers. At the end, she says, kids lined up to take turns at Jorgensen’s microphone, some standing on tiptoe to reach it, to say how glad they were to have the wall.
That infectious sense of empowerment is exactly what attracted Adidas to the project, says Stephen Dowling, vice president of marketing for Adidas Outdoor. “Our belief is that sport is the remedy to a lot of what is wrong in the world today. In the next few years the majority of people will live in cities, and we want to help bring the outdoors to those in cities.”
Jorgensen says that Adidas approached him to ask what level of funding it would take to build ten climbing walls. “They don’t like to talk about the money, they like to talk about the impact.”
1Climb’s project is particularly exciting right now, says Dowling, with climbing debuting as an Olympic sport in 2020. “We want to give every kid the same starting line,” he says. “What if a future Olympic champion starts at a Boys and Girl’s Club? That’s our ceiling.”
It’s been a big week for Luis Benitez. On Thursday, the former Everest guide and director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office was tapped by former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to be the first speaker at his inaugural presidential campaign rally. The day before, Benitez announced he was leaving the Governor’s office, and the post he helped create nearly four years ago, to take a job with VF Corp, the multi billion-dollar owner of such brands as the North Face, Smartwool, and Eagle Creek.
Benitez was on hand Thursday night to lend credibility to Hickenlooper’s position as a leader who can bring together environmentalists and energy industry representatives, and he spoke about Colorado’s efforts to build some 7,000 electric vehicle charging stations across the state and to capture methane gas in the energy exploration process.
Hickenlooper had appointed Benitez to bridge the gap between public-lands agencies and the outdoor recreation industry in the state. His biggest accomplishment was undoubtedly landing the thrice-annual Outdoor Retailer show for Denver when the industry left Utah in protest of that state’s antagonistic approach to federal public lands. In ring-leading other states to develop their own outdoor rec offices (there are currently eight, with six others in development or exploration), Benitez became the face of government’s interest in the outdoor recreation industry, one that’s recently been measured by the feds at $412 billion, larger than both the auto and oil and gas exploration industries.
Democratic power brokers in Colorado have been talking about Benitez’s prospects as a political candidate ever since the charismatic international mountain guide emerged in Hickenlooper’s camp, so it surprised many when he jumped to the private sector this week. At VF Corp his title will be vice president of governmental affairs and global impact, a job they created for him as the company moves its corporate headquarters from North Carolina to Denver. It has been reported that he will have oversight of the VF Foundation, though VF Corp directed Benitez not to speak about his upcoming role at the company for this interview.
Isat down with Benitez to get his take on how his role developed and where both he and the political prospects for the outdoor industry go from here.
OUTSIDE: You just kicked off Hickenlooper’s inaugural presidential rally Thursday night, yet here you are turning to the private sector. Are you shelving your future political career? BENITEZ: Not at all. I think the most effective leaders spend time in both the public and private sector. Without experience in business, I don’t think I’d be the best person to oversee a state or national economy. The VF Corp post is an exciting opportunity. I can’t talk much about it, because I haven’t started the job yet, but the word impact is right there in my job title. It's not enough to make a quality product anymore--that product has to stand for something and needs to resonate with the people that build that product and buy that product. When I look at the concept of impact through the lenses of conservation or social justice, it’s an exciting opportunity.
What were your biggest successes as the Colorado Outdoor Recreation czar?
Business and economic development was one my prime directives, so landing the Outdoor Retailer show was huge. I also think that steering the show to a state that puts a high value on federal public lands was the right thing to do.
My office also brokered a partnership between Colorado’s tourism office and the Leave No Trace organization to make low impact visitation a part of welcoming tourists to our open space and wildlands. As we promote outdoor recreation, we have to be mindful of its impacts. I’m proud of the work we did to help launch Western Colorado University’s Outdoor Industry MBA program. For the outdoor industry to continue to increase its impact, we need to mind the talent pipeline. Its not so different than university programs prepping students for aerospace or mining, except this one really looks at sustainability as a core principle.
I’m also really proud of the Colorado Confluence Accords—the agreement among the eight states that currently have state-level outdoor recreation directors that aligns us in a set of common values: economic development, conservation and stewardship, education and workforce training, and public health and wellness. If all of the state offices are pulling in the same direction, we can accomplish more.
In the past, you’ve said Outdoor Retailer needs to evolve. What does that look like?
South By Southwest might be our best model. It really got on the map through its tech component, and then the music and arts really helped develop this cultural phenomenon that celebrates new creativity and is a huge networking and collaborating opportunity. Outdoor Retailer has been about getting together over product. In Colorado, we’re trying to move the external cultural aspects towards the core of the event. I think it has to continue to move in that direction to maintain relevancy, but also to keep the ball rolling on outdoor rec as an emerging political force.
Diversity, equity and inclusion have been talking points at Outdoor Retailer in recent years, and became a big outdoor industry flashpoint this winter with the conflict over Camber Outdoors leadership. You’ve been outspoken on that event.
Of course I’m glad that there’s strong leadership emerging to lead Camber in Diana Seung. And there’s no denying that there were mistakes made from Camber leadership. They should have been more proactive and aware in their diversity efforts and willing to accommodate other parties. But I strongly disagree about the way in which this change came about.
There is no place in our community for online bullying. When people make mistakes, we need to come together and figure out a solution, and all grow together. It’s not right to bully a woman who was willing to step up and at least try to make things better. I was in Germany at the ISPO trade fair when the conflict blew up, trying to get both sides together, but I just couldn’t get it done.
I don’t think this was a step forward for us because we bullied a woman out of her job, and that’s not the kind of community we should be. At all. Especially because we need each and every one of us if the outdoor industry is going to lead us forward out of this political divide. I still think there’s time to bring both parties together and make a better diversity pledge. We need to get there.
What else does the outdoor industry need to do to keep increasing its political and cultural power?
Inclusion is the big thing. We have to keep beating that drum. But we need to expand our ideas of what inclusion even means for the outdoor industry. It’s not just along gender and racial lines—it has to be along political lines, and along cultural lines. We’ve got to draw in different user groups like mountain bikers and hunters and motorized. We’re all using the same public lands. We should all care about climate change impacting those lands. My office has an advisory council that brings representatives from conservation and the forest service and motorized recreation and retail, and we get together and hash things out. It’s family business. Outdoor industry family business that we can disagree on but find common ground and present a unified front to get what we want. In Colorado, motorized recreation is working with the mountain bike community to help them fond a way to get mountain bikers to help pay for more access and conservation. We need more pay-to-play models. Bringing those two groups together on something positive is huge.
There should be a federal director of the outdoor recreation industry. Well, technically there is one. Rick May [was] an advisor to Ryan Zinke at Interior [Zinke resigned in December], but I think we can all agree that this administration’s interior department has been disappointing, to say the least. May has actually gone dark on communications, so I’m not sure if he’s still in the role. Clearly, that role has to be elevated, and capable of convening and coordinating in good faith.
We need to streamline the ability of more people to get outside. The Recreation Not Red Tape Act is a bipartisan bill that would make it easier for people to recreate on public lands with easier permitting online, and easier special use permitting for school and guided groups who want to introduce newbies to the outdoors. Right now, those processes can be almost insurmountable. We need to take the opportunity to get more constituents outside, especially under educational circumstances.
We should be thinking about moving the Forest Service from the department of Agriculture to the Department of the Interior. Interior has managed their fire budgets better than Agriculture, where forest fire costs have crippled the department. Culturally, it’s a much better fit. Recreation, not mono-cropping our wildlands, is the economic future of our national forests. We should be managing them accordingly and Interior is much better at that.
You mentioned pay to play. That might not be popular at VF Corp, which has opposed the backpack tax through its membership in the Outdoor Industry Association.
I can’t speculate on VF Corp’s stances on such ideas, but in my role at the Colorado Governor’s office I came to believe that we have to find more ways to support for the public lands we all love. The reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund is huge, and it shows bi-partisan momentum, but it’s not going to be enough. If people are moving to a place like Colorado because they want that quality of life and that quality of life is diminished because of that lack of infrastructure and maintenance, then where are we? We need to figure out funding mechanisms that are going to sustainably carry our natural resources in the future. In Colorado we looked at everything from license plates to taxes on gear like hunters and fishermen have been paying for 80 years. Motorized users have a sticker they buy that helps pay for infrastructure and maintenance. If recreationists are focused on finding a political voice on one hand but not paying in on the other, it’s going to diminish our political power going forward.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On President’s Day 2015, Woods Valley Ski Area was poised for a banner weekend. After several drought years, the 25-acre, two-lift ski resort in Westernville, New York,finally had great snow for what is traditionally one of the ski industry’s biggest weekends. Except that with an arctic air mass descending and wind chill figures expected to drop to minus 20, weather reporters across the Northeast cranked up the hype, warning residents of “brutal” and “dangerous” cold. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo followed suit, officially warning citizens to “stay indoors wherever possible.”
Tim Woods, owner of Woods Valley, had been railing against such sensationalized reporting for years, writing to local broadcasters and imploring them not to label snow forecasts of more than six inches “warnings” or “threats” and wetter storms as “heart-attack snow.”
On the resort’s Facebook page, Woods posted Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting of General Washington crossing the Delaware River amid chunks of ice. “Imagine if George Washington had watched the local weather and decided the 'Real Feel' temp was just too cold to cross the Delaware on a frigid Christmas night in 1776,” he wrote. “The battle of Trenton was a pivotal battle that turned the tide of the Revolutionary War. Stop believing the hype, dress for the weather outside, and come enjoy the best snow conditions we’ve seen in years.”
Despite a sunny day with winds just four to six miles per hour and temps that rose to zero—pretty decent conditions for Northeastern skiing—Woods' business was down 95 percent that day four years ago.
This January, with similarly good snow but another approaching polar vortex, Woods reposted his Washington Crossing the Delaware rant, but again, skier visits plunged.
Woods is one of several Northeastern ski area operators mobilizing against negative winter-weather reporting, both because of its percieved impacts on their businesses as well as on the general population’s well-being. Local stations, they say, seldom report the actual winter temperature any more, relying instead on more dramatic wind chill or “RealFeel” (a method developed by AccuWeather using factors including temperature, wind, humidity and others to describe how it feels outside)figures. Normal winter weather is treated like a crisis. The Vermont Ski Areas Association has begun hosting “weather summits” for meteorologists, lobbying them to frame winter weather positively. Modern clothing is capable of making people comfortable in the worst possible conditions, the resort operators point out, and when time outdoors in any season is being proved to have tremendous health benefits, the last thing we should be doing is discouraging anyone from going outside.
Last year, we all laughed when footage went viral of a Weather Channel reporter dramatically bracing himself against allegedly ferocious winds during Hurricane Florence as two dudes wearing shorts casually strolled by. That kind of over-dramatization is the norm in snow country, says Eric Friedman, marketing director at Vermont’s Mad River Glenn. “Reporters are dressing up in parkas in the studio and telling people to go outside only as a last resort. It’s like they’ve all been exiled to Vermont from some tropical paradise. Lots of them really seem to hate winter.”
“Negative weather reporting absolutely has an effect on ski area attendance,” says Kelly Pawlak, president of the National Ski Areas Association. It’s especially true, she says, for smaller resorts near population centers that rely on the casual, two- or three-times-per-year skier. “A negative report on Thursday can scrap a lot of upcoming weekend ski plans for a resort that relies on day trips.”
Last year, when Northeastern resorts experienced 45 days of below zero temperatures between Christmas and February, visits were significantly down. While it’s difficult to parse which days correlate to particularly alarmist weather reporting, every resort representative I spoke with believed it was a significant compounding factor.
Most say the biggest culprit is extensive reliance on wind-chill figures, which can generate numbers 20 to 30 degrees colder than the actual temperature. The problem, many have pointed out, is that not only is wind chill a flawed measurement, it also correlates very poorly to human experience. The formula to determine wind chill is based on a single study that measures the effects of a 3.1-mile-per-hour breeze in a wind tunnel on the faces of a small sample size of people.
According to meteorologist Russ Murley, who generates forecasts for dozens of resorts, from Sugarloaf to Telluride, for Precision Weather Service, wind chill doesn’t take into account direct sunlight and is typically based on the highest forecasted wind gusts. Most of the time, he says, the wind only achieves its maximum gusts for a few minutes at a time. Plus, wind chill is only capable of estimating the effects of weather on bare skin. Apart from the occasional closing-day bash in the spring, almost no one is skiing around naked. Modern gear like Gore-Tex, goggles, and helmets are well equipped to brush off cold and wind. “It’s not mittens made by mom and cotton long johns,” says Murley, a Maine resident and a lifelong skier.
In his own forecasting, Murley never emphasizes wind chill. He too believes that weather reporting has become increasingly dramatic for the sake of ratings. “When I started, we delivered the weather without a lot of hype,” he says. Now even winter storms have hurricane-style names. “Last night here in Maine we had an ordinary winter storm, but millions of people in the Northeast are under weather advisories.”
In December, at one of its summits combat negative winter-weather reporting, the Vermont Ski Areas Association hosted an event for a dozen broadcast meteorologists at Stratton Mountain Resort. The three-day event featured technical climate presentations, but also a discussion, led by a North Face employee, on layering, windproofing, and other snowsports dress techniques. There was plenty of time for skiing and snowshoeing, too. The idea, says organizer Adam Scott, is to make weather journalists more comfortable with winter conditions and so reduce their bias on-air or even Instagram. “Meteorologists are surprisingly popular on social media,” says Scott. “Everyone wants to know about the weather.”
There are plenty of discussions about how ironic it is that people are being scared away by cold weather reports in the short term, when in the long run, says Scott, the real threat to the ski business is loss of snow due to climate change. “Sustainability is a big push in the ski business,” he says.
It’s not just about business and profit, either, says Woods. Ski areas are all about having fun outdoors and exercising. Their owners loathe any influences that drive an increasingly inert population deeper indoors. As he wrote to one local weatherman, “Negative opinion and commentary will keep people in a hibernated state, inside and inactive.”
When I spoke with Denis Esbaugh, president of Holiday Valley Ski Resort in Ellicotvile, New York, last month, schools in his region happened to be closed because of cold. “Twenty years ago that never would have happened,” he said. “We are far more risk averse today than we used to be.” Twenty years ago, if schools were closed for any reason, he said, his resort would be full of kids skiing. Instead, four of his resort’s 12 lifts were closed for lack of business.
Conservationists are celebrating the Tuesday passage by the Senate of the massive National Resources Management Act, one of the most significant and sweeping pieces of conservation legislation created in years. The bill designates some 1.3 million acres of wilderness, creates six new National Park Service units, and most importantly, permanently reauthorizes the venerable Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), ensuring conservation acquisition funds for generations to come.
“Given the contentious and partisan nature of politics in Washington, this is a huge moment,” says Adam Cramer, executive director of the Outdoor Alliance, a consortium of outdoor recreation advocacy organizations. “That the one thing all those senators can agree on is conservation makes this doubly sweet.” The bill passed by a vote of 92 to 8 and is moving on to the House of Representatives, which is expected to pass the legislation.
The 662-page bill is a conglomeration of some 100 pieces of legislation. Though it was largely championed by western lawmakers like senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Ron Wyden of Oregon, the bill does provide conservation benefits for every state through the LWCF, which helps federal agencies, states, and local communities purchase land for parks and access to open spaces. That’s why experts believe it has been the rare issue with bipartisan agreement during the Trump administration. As with all large congressional bills, however, the National Resources Management Act is an act of compromise that leaves some wary of its effects.
The legislation most conservationists are skeptical of is the Alaska Native Veterans Land Allotment Equity Act introduced by Murkowski and fellow Alaska senator Dan Sullivan. The legislation would allow Native Alaskan armed-services veterans who missed a historic 1971 homesteader land allotment to claim 160 acres of federal public lands. The problem, according to critics, is that it’s a wrong that was already righted in 1998 and currently there’s nothing to stop beneficiaries from selling their land to developers. That puts some 448,000 acres at risk.
“Alaska’s public lands often tend to be the political grease for land-conservation initiatives in the Lower 48, and that’s wrong,” Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League told the Outside contributing editor Christopher Solomon in an article for the Washington Post. “These are the last fully intact ecosystems in the United States. They shouldn’t just be trade-bait to pass broader public lands bills.”
While most conservationists, including Cramer, didn’t like the Alaska Native Veterans Land Allotment, they didn’t view it as a poison pill for the larger act. Cramer particularly lauded the breadth of conservation tools used in the bill—it creates new national park units, new national monuments, new wilderness areas, new wild and scenic river sections, and a new national recreation area, and it withdraws the right to develop minerals in two separate watersheds.
“It’s a much more modern and precise approach to conservation,” Cramer says.
Similarly, Cramer points out that the bill’s bipartisan support probably came down to the way that most of the individual legislation was created—by convening multiple stakeholders, including those on opposite sides of the issues, to help hash out agreements. No single piece of the puzzle illustrates that approach better than the Emery County Public Lands Initiative, which createsin a single Utah county some 660,000 acres of wilderness, a new national monument, a new national recreation area, and designates two new sections of the Green River as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
The bill was crafted over some 20 years by stakeholders as diverse as ranchers, offroaders, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and wilderness advocates. The basic idea was that in order to preserve traditional uses like ranching and four-wheeling on nearby public lands, locals would agree to create huge swaths of wilderness and forge no new motorized routes, traditionally an anathema to rural Utah residents. As recently as late October, the notoriously hard-line Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance decried the bill as “a step backwards for conservation” and organized a protest of some 300 people against the bill. Yet on Tuesday, SUWA executive director Scott Groene praised the bill as “a tremendous step forward.”
So what changed in the meantime?
In November, Illinois senator and noted wilderness champion Dick Durbin negotiated an additional 100,000 acres of wilderness, adding acreage in Utah’s Muddy Creek and Labyrinth Canyon areas. That was enough for SUWA to bless the deal, despite provisions like releasing some acreage currently protected as a wilderness study area so that a coal mine can be expanded.
“Creating 660,000 acres of wilderness is huge,” says Groene. Similarly, Emery County public lands director Ray Petersen says that locals are happy to have the land quarrels of the past close to settled. “There’s still some trepidation about creating wilderness around here,” he says. “Once people realize that they can still go out and do what they want to do, I believe they’ll all be happy.”
Petersen isn’t celebrating too much yet. He’s been waiting 20 years for this, and he acknowledges that although his political contacts have indicated President Trump will sign the bill if it passes through the House of Representatives, Trump’s actions have been hard to predict. The House is expected to take up the bill after its upcoming weeklong recess, assuming the government doesn’t shut down again.
When Steven Jeffery helped pioneer climbing at Joe’s Valley Boulders in the 1990s, the Salt Lake City teen worried that the locals driving to work the coal mines might take potshots at him as he clung lizard-like to the rocks. The canyon where he climbs is about a three-hour drive south of the city, but like many places in rural Utah, that three hours can put you in foreign land. When trucks passed Jeffrey, he’d often hide. But not anymore.
Set in a trio of steep-headed box canyons in Emery County, Utah, Joe’s Valley Boulders is becoming one of the world’s preeminent destinations for climbers. Hundreds of massive sandstone rocks lie strewn across the piñon- and juniper-stippled canyon slopes, offering thousands of problems of all grades, with dozens more added each year. An estimated 15,000 climbers now flock to Joe’s from around the world annually, clustering in groups to spot and encourage each other and camping roadside next to bonfires.
This influx has come as a curious surprise to the locals, who marvel (and have certainly never shot at) the rangy climbers marching among the limestone boulders with massive square crash pads on their backs. Fewer residents of this rural desert county of 10,077 drive by these days, though, because the pair of mines dug into the same canyons are now closed.
As in coal country nationwide, the region is feeling the pinch of a declining industry. Cheaper natural gas is the new fuel of choice, and five of Emery County’s eight coal mines have closed in the past decade—the latest in 2015, taking 182 union jobs with it. The clock is also ticking for the two coal-fired plants—now 40 and 44 years old—that are the county’s largest employer. Population has declined 7 percent since 2010. All of this has led some in the community to look to outdoor recreation as a way to bolster the economy. Joe’s Valley is a start, but mountain biking remains largely untapped (especially for bike-mad Utah), and Emery’s real underutilized resource is the San Rafael Swell, a million-acre chunk of redrock desert every bit as spectacular as Utah’s five national parks.
In a move surprisingly divergent from the Utah communities fighting to roll back Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments, Emery County officials are lobbying the federal government to increase protection on their local public lands. The Emery County Public Land Management Act, introduced in Congress this month, would create a massive National Conservation Area out of the San Rafael Swell and designate some 577,986 acres as wilderness, a statewide increase of about 50 percent—significant in a state long at odds with the designation. Not everyone is happy about it. Some locals don’t want their community overrun by jeepers, cyclists, and selfie-stick-wielding tourists. Others resent any restrictions on local lands. But Emery’s nascent experiment may yield an alternative formula for regions stricken by collapsing extractive industries: The county wants to revitalize its community by increasing public lands protections, embracing the adventurers who recreate on them.
Jeffery is helping with that effort. These days, he’s the lead route setter at Salt Lake City’s Momentum Indoor Climbing Gyms. He also helps organize a burgeoning annual festival in the cluster of small towns near Joe’s Valley that brings climbers together with the still somewhat suspicious locals. Highlights include a beef jerky–making workshop at a butchery and a rodeo where climbers mingle with ranching families and take a shot at bull riding, chicken chase (you catch it, you keep it), and cash cow, where participants try to pull strips of tape redeemable for prizes from the fur of a loose bull. “We want locals to see that we aren’t all sketchy dirtbags,” Jeffery says.
According to Jeffery, the best gateway between Emery County and the climbers is the coffee shop that a local Mormon couple opened last year in their single-level home in Orangeville, Utah (population 1,500), about ten miles from the mouth of the canyon. Doug and Camie Stilson saw an opportunity to offer climbers free Wi-Fi and good coffee, two things largely unavailable in rural Emery County. At first, Jeffery says he was skeptical. But a year later, Camie makes a solid Americano and there is a map on the wall bristling with pushpins—a memento from each person from around the world who has visited Doug’s childhood home in Utah.
Orangeville is set between the cinnamon-colored cliffs of the Wasatch Plateau and a towering trio of coal-fired power plant smokestacks. The town is a grid of modest ranch-style homes, the bustling Food Ranch grocery, and a tavern with a “for sale” sign out front. It is a sunny winter day when I visit, along with Emery County’s economic development director, Jordan Leonard. On Main Street, we head to the Cup of Joe’s entrance, which doubles as the Stilson family’s front door. The family has remodeled the living room with new paint, Pergo flooring, and Ikea furniture, and they’ve installed a service window into the kitchen, where a restaurant-grade espresso machine rests on a counter. Sitting somewhat formally on the edge of the couch, Camie Stilson explains that she was looking for work she could do from home so she could also take care of her son with special needs. “We hardly used this room anyhow,” she says.
As a Mormon, Camie never drank coffee before she opened the business. “I learned how to make lattes on YouTube,” she says. The locals mostly order smoothies or steamers with flavored shots or chocolate. The shop opened in March 2017, and the Stilsons say they were profitable before the end of the year.
“Just a few months after we opened,” Camie says, “an Austrian couple came in. I called my husband: ‘I can’t believe there are people from Austria sitting in our living room drinking coffee.’”
Doug Stilson works for Emery Telecom, but Camie’s first husband was a coal miner, as was her father until he was injured in a mining accident, a common occurrence in Emery County. More than 120 people have died in mining accidents dating back to the late 1800s, including 27 in the 1984 Wilberg Mine fire and nine in the 2007 Crandal Canyon cave-in. In this tight-knit region, everyone knows someone who has been killed in the mines.
Three young women walk into the café, all dressed in fleece and beanies. They’re climbers, and they take a seat by the window.
“You’re still in town!” says Leonard, who had met them here earlier in the week.
“Tomorrow is our last day, but we are so sad to leave,” says Rydell Stottlemyer, who, along with her friends Alex Lichter and Kristine Bell, is a student at the University of Northern Colorado. “We love it here.”
While Stilson steams their drinks in the kitchen, Leonard does a little research on climbing, asking if you get naming rights when you’re the first to successfully climb a boulder and how many hours a day they usually climb. They joke about the crash pads climbers carry around. “I thought you guys climbed with them on,” Leonard says, laughing.
“I’ve told people it’s a moose saddle before,” Lichter says. She asks what Orangeville residents think of the climbers.
There are still some in town who are wary of outsiders, Leonard says, but he’s not one of them. “I think it’s a good thing. It opens our minds to meet new people.”
Leonard and I finish our drinks and say goodbye. As we drive up the street, he says, “When respected people in the community like the Stilsons open a business like this supporting an industry that some people think is sketchy, it helps.”
Next we head to the Food Ranch, one of the first businesses in town to truly recognize the economic potential of climbers. The grocery store is 40 years old, but only recently has it gained a somewhat international reputation among the Joe’s Valley coterie for stocking energy bars, microbrews, and kombucha alongside its famous Butterfinger-topped glazed donuts. Food Ranch also rents crash pads, sells climbing chalk, and lets climbers hang out, use Wi-Fi, and even shower in an upstairs lounge.
I meet manager Lisa Scovill near the entrance of the stucco-fronted building adorned with red wagon wheels. “I love climbers,” she says. Scovill is thin and fast-talking and is wearing a Guns N’ Roses sweatshirt underneath her apron. She estimates that during the spring and fall climbing season, 150 or more climbers a day shop at Food Ranch, spending thousands of dollars. “People complain about the climbers because they aren’t from here. But I get it, I’m an outsider too,” says Scovill, who moved to Emery County in the 1980s from West Virginia after her ex-husband found work with the mines. “Hell, I’ve had some of them stay at my house,” she says, referring to the time she loaned her guest room to a French couple.
“People say they are trashing our mountain, but I say, ‘Have you seen the huge trash bags full of Busch beer cans they’re constantly hauling down from there? You know how many cases of Busch I’ve ever sold to climbers? Zero. They are cleaning up after you.’”
In July 2017, to help Emery County residents understand the economic power of climbers, Leonard invited Steven Jeffery to address the monthly chamber of commerce meeting, held at the Museum of San Rafael, five minutes from Orangeville in neighboring Castle Dale (population: 1,500).
Jeffery related demographics about climbers, like how they tend to be well-educated and well-paid, or how they’ve managed to turn around economies, like in the faltering coal-mining towns around Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. But what seemed to really sink in was when he put a picture of a Sprinter van in his PowerPoint presentation. “You have all seen these, right?” Jeffrey asked. “They all laughed, because of course they had. Then I said, ‘These things are worth anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000.’ That got their attention.”
To understand the larger plan at play in Emery, look at a map of Utah. Scattered across its southern half are green splotches with celebrated names like Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Arches, and Canyonlands, all waypoints on the Great American road trip. Midway through that route lies Emery County, an empty white space on the map. To steer people off the highway and into businesses, they’ve drafted the Emery County Public Land Management Act to ink that space with federally recognized attractions.
The bill was introduced by Utah Representative John Curtis and Senator Orrin Hatch, who started talking with residents and stakeholders about the bill two decades ago. Hatch was a big proponent of downsizing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, but his office is really proud of this one. It would set aside 2,543 acres for the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry National Monument; 336,467 acres for the San Rafael Swell Western Heritage and Historic Mining National Conservation Area (NCA); and 577,986 acres of wilderness. It would also give Wild and Scenic River designation to 54 miles of the Green River. It is truly a massive land deal. And when asked why Hatch supported it, a spokesperson for his office, Matt Whitlock, called it an “ideal balance between access and protection.”
The heart of the proposal is the San Rafael Swell, a 75-by-40-mile geologic upheaval eroded over eons into a spectacular assembly of deep canyons, towering mesas, and cockscomb ridges. Its best-known location is Goblin Valley State Park, on the southeast flank, a 3,654-acre array of surreal redrock hoodoos, but other draws include the San Rafael River’s precipitous Little Grand Canyon, a handful of significant ancient rock-art panels, and dozens of enticing and sometimes technical canyoneering routes. (In one incident last year, search and rescue freed a woman stuck between narrow walls with the help of a gallon of dish soap.) The Swell, as it is known, has also long been popular with motorized users. Rugged rock-crawling trails like Behind the Reef and Devil’s Racetrack draw ATVers from across the country.
In Utah, opening trails to ATVs is also an ideological battle, a smaller war to beat back federal government overreach. Fifteen years ago, environmental groups won the closure of 468 miles of road and trail in the Swell, a ruling that’s been continually challenged by ATV enthusiasts in round after round of court hearings. In the past, even Emery has mostly shown deference to motorized users, but that may be shifting.
“The tourism studies we’re seeing say you need to attract nonmotorized users,” says Kent Wilson, an Emery County commissioner. “Hikers and bikers tend to like to go out to eat and stay in hotels. Motorized users bring groceries from home, and then set up base camp with their trailered four-wheelers and never come to town.”
To understand the bill a bit better, I meet with Ray Petersen, Emery County’s public lands administrator, in his office in Castle Dale. Petersen is a former horsepacking and river-running outfitter, and he sports both the mustache and the patient, deliberate manner of his previous career. In this new role, he has the unique position as the liaison between Emery County and the federal land agencies. The map of the county on his wall is a wash of brown BLM lands, with a brushstroke of green national forest in the northwest corner—Emery county is 92 percent federally managed. Private lands make up a patchy white stripe in northwest corner, where the majority of residents live in small towns like Castle Dale, Huntington, or Orangeville.
With so much of the county in federal hands, Petersen says, “we feel we have no choice but to work out compromises.”
Most significant on the map are the shaded yellow areas—eight large Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) accounting for nearly 500,000 acres. Most Utah counties have been in a standoff for decades with the conservation community over WSAs, which are largely administered like wilderness with prohibitions on drilling, mining, and motorized use. That’s obviously a tough sell in Emery County. Groups like the Sierra Club and the powerful Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), on the other hand, want the state’s 900,000 WSA acres converted to full-fledged wilderness because it offers more stringent protections against mineral extraction and motorized use. And in the current political climate, Wilderness Study Areas are for the first time being threatened with legislation to strip their protections.
In exchange for locking up so much land, what do the people of Emery County expect in return? A 2017 study by Montana-based research institute Headwaters Economics found that local economies surrounding 17 national monuments all expanded after designation. In the communities surrounding Grand Staircase-Escalante, between 2001 and 2015, population grew by 13 percent, per capita income by 17 percent, and personal income by 32 percent. These gateway communities to monuments and national parks realize the benefits not only through visitor expenditure but also through an influx of new workers, businesses, and retirees, all attracted by a higher quality of life.
Most important to Emery County residents is that they’d get certainty on how 92 percent of their county is managed. Unlike when Clinton created Grand-Staircase by presidential proclamation, the community would have more say in how the NCA and the wilderness within Emery is managed. The county would get seats on a management council alongside federal land managers. The bill would also lock in routes for motorized users, a controversial move that would roll back efforts made by environmentalists. “We don’t think litigation is any way to manage public lands,” Petersen says. “We really believe we have a good product here in light of the controversy that’s going on with our neighbors near Grand Staircase and Bears Ears.”
Not everyone is on board with Emery County’s recreation awakening. “It’s hard to find a camp spot on lots of fall and spring weekends anymore,” says Jeff Guymon, a rancher as well as Emery County’s head of IT. “Then, when you do, it’s sometimes trashed. Last weekend, we found human waste all over the place, even some syringes. Tourism does bring in some riffraff.”
County commissioner Lynn Sitterud agrees that many of his older constituents don’t want to trade their way of life and solitude for tourism. But if it’s coming regardless, he’d rather see it concentrated to the county’s east side. “It’s already an overflow for Moab, which is just too crowded,” he says.
In its success, Moab has become a symbol to some Utahns of the resortification tourism can bring. The national park gateway town has bumper-to-bumper traffic half the year and a significant affordable housing problem. In 2016, the city placed a short moratorium on new construction because the wastewater treatment plant was over capacity. “Moab is a mess even to just drive through,” Sitterud says, “much less live in.”
Another concern, Guymon says, is that there could be big financial costs to the community, from search and rescue expenses to road maintenance, which is a real issue in an enormous county with a tiny taxpaying population.
Pro-wilderness hardliners like the Sierra Club and SUWA have also come out swinging in response to the new land bill. “This is big step backwards for wilderness,” says Scott Groene, executive director of SUWA. He points to the reopened motorized routes and their linkages that would be “cherry stemmed” into the newly designated wilderness, a prospect he says would defeat the purpose of motorized exclusions.
Also problematic, according to Groene, are the so-called slippery slope provisions, like allowing ranchers to use ATVs to tend their grazing allotments, which could set a dangerous precedent for wilderness management nationwide. He’d prefer to see new trails and campgrounds built closer to development, rather than in the pristine Swell canyons, as is the plan at the moment. “Developed recreation is already causing damage in the backcountry,” Groene says, “and this would make it worse.”
That’s not to say that everyone in the conservation community is against the bill. The Outdoor Alliance, American Whitewater, and the Pew Charitable Trust all support the idea. And with Senator Hatch retiring this year, he may be particularly motivated to make the bill work.
At least one person in Emery County casts an envious eye on Moab. The area’s biggest cycling booster is Lamar Guymon, who happens to be Jeff’s uncle. The elder Guymon, 71, served as Emery County’s sheriff for 40 years and last November was elected mayor of Huntington, a town of 2,000 people about 15 minutes up the road from Orangeville. I meet him at the town hall before we set out to explore some nearby singletrack.
Stocky and slow-moving, Guymon loads my bike onto the hitch rack of his Nissan SUV. As we drive east out of Huntington into the Swell, he tells me he’s been riding bikes nearly every day since 1976. At 22, he went into law enforcement. “I didn’t want to work in the mines or be a farmer like my dad.” Guymon’s a talkative guy, and the social interaction and daily variety of policing suited him. But it took his weight ballooning to 285 pounds and a diabetes diagnosis for him to embrace fitness. Guymon began running marathons, but when he broke his foot (playing football against the fire department) and could no longer run, he started pedaling bikes. “I’ve never found anything that relieves stress better than riding,” he says.
Guymon points out an unused two-block parcel of city land on the edge of town. As mayor, he plans to build a bike park with jumps and interconnected trail loops there. For funding, he has a grant from the state, plus a backhoe operator willing to donate his time.
Mountain biking has a reputation for revitalizing the economies of extraction-based communities around the country. In the former iron-mining town of Crosby, Minnesota, a 25-mile trail network built in 2011 has been credited with creating 15 new businesses and pumping $2 million into the economy every year. Oakridge, Oregon, a struggling logging town, has seen a similar boost from mountain bikers. But the best analogue for Emery County might be Fruita, Colorado. A growing network of 139 miles of singletrack in that ranching community contributes an estimated $14.5 million annually to local shops, eateries, and hotels around the valley, largely from Denver-area residents looking for a closer alternative to Moab. As in Emery County, Fruita is surrounded by thousands of acres of BLM-administered desert with the sort of loose soil and rolling terrain perfect for building zippy mountain bike trails. Like Fruita, Emery County also lies between increasingly crowded Moab and a major metropolitan area full of mountain bikers. With a good trail network, Emery County could be Salt Lake City’s version of Fruita. Already, its tourism marketing slogan is “San Rafael Country: Closer than you think.”
The straight gravel road rises gradually, and after 20 minutes, Guymon and I arrive at the Little Grand Canyon Overlook, where the San Rafael River twists through a ledgy sandstone canyon 2,000 feet below. Winding for 15 miles along the rim is the Goodwater Rim Trail, Guymon’s favorite. After all, he almost singlehandedly built it.
“I love this country, but it sure has tried to kill me,” he says. Guymon points to one of several boulders placed near the rim to keep cars from driving over the edge. “That one rolled onto my leg in 2011, and I ended up in the hospital for a month,” he says. Before that, in May 2006, riding Goodwater with a shovel strapped to his bike, Guymon fell over the canyon rim, landing 20 feet down the slope in a juniper tree. He broke his arm and fractured his orbital bone. He still managed to crawl out of the canyon to his car and drive himself home.
The trail slaloms between piñon and juniper trees and over limestone ledges just a few yards from the rim. On a cool, partly sunny day, we encounter just one couple, who were trail running and taking photos of each other in front of the spectacular canyon and the tombstone peaks beyond. It’s a fantastic trail, but to draw the sort of crowds Fruita and Moab does, Emery will need to build dozens more like it. Then, of course, this trail would be packed, along with camper vans and trailers jammed into the trailheads. The inevitable downside to investing in outdoor recreation, of course, is the loss of this sort of solitude.
As we drive back to town, I ask Guymon about this trade-off. Is he ready to welcome the masses in order to support the county’s transition from coal to recreation?
He looks out the window, seemingly tracing routes in his mind along the red earth. Then he turns to me and says, “I see bike trails everywhere.”
When Lucas St. Clair woke up at Lunksoos Camp, on the East Branch of the Penobscot, and discovered that Ryan Zinke’s staff had TPed his tent, he knew his plan was working. It was a chilly June morning in 2017, the end of the Secretary of the Interior’s visit to Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, one of 27 that President Trump was considering dismantling. Zinke had been met with vociferous protests at monuments like Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in May 2017. St. Clair decided to take a different approach to protect the 87,500-acre monument he had worked for five years to create out of land purchased by his mother, Burt’s Bees founder and philanthropist Roxanne Quimby.
He encouraged supporters to show up at the airport with welcome signs and to be seen hiking, biking, and even plein-air painting in the monument when Zinke visited. The 40-year-old St. Clair personally toured the secretary through Katahdin Woods and Waters: fishing his favorite stream, canoeing the East Branch of the Penobscot, and camping at the Lunksoos Camps. The charm offensive seemed to work—Zinke’s staff pranked the affable St. Clair by wrapping his backpacking tent in toilet paper, and the secretary told the press, “From what I hear, I think all sides love the land, everyone appreciates public access, and everyone appreciates that jobs matter. And who cannot say this is a beautiful site.” When the secretary’s review appeared in December, Grand Staircase-Escalante was cut in half and Bears Ears was shrunk by two-thirds; Katahdin Woods and Waters was left unmolested. “I knew we had to appeal to his ego,” St. Clair says.
The saga of Katahdin Woods and Waters has been widely told. Quimby began purchasing the timberlands just east of the Appalachian Trail’s northern terminus on Mount Katahdin almost two decades earlier, but she encountered stiff opposition from locals to her plan to turn the property into a national park. Many saw that as a threat to the region’s traditional logging and paper-milling industries, as well as an emblem of federal government overreach. Worse, Quimby’s approach was uncompromising and tone deaf—more grassfire than grassroots. “Ban Roxanne” stickers were pasted onto bumpers across Maine’s northern “woodbasket” region.
In 2011, Quimby passed the baton to St. Clair, one of her twin children. (His sister, Hannah, is director of the Quimby Family Foundation.) Over the next five years, in an effort to reverse public opinion, he met with a majority of the 10,000 or so residents of the towns surrounding the proposed monument. He met a grocery store owner in the walk-in cooler because the owner didn’t want to be seen talking to St. Clair. When people insulted his family or the proposed monument on Facebook, St. Clair knocked on their doors and asked to have a face-to-face discussion instead. His approach, which he calls the “happy warrior,” is based on projecting warmth, open-minded listening, and, he says, “fighting for what I feel is right while remaining optimistic that we can both get what we want.” The message was almost always that the new monument could revitalize the economy of the region, which was struggling with the paper industry’s collapse.
It worked. By August 2016, President Obama felt there was enough local support to designate Katahdin Woods and Waters a national monument. That consensus was strong enough to withstand Trump’s work to pare public lands, but it is almost completely absent from national political conversations.
St. Clair thinks he has a solution to that as well: He’s now running for Maine’s solidly purple, almost entirely rural 2nd Congressional District, which includes the monument. If he wins the June 12 primary, St. Clair will face Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin, a fierce monument opponent. With the economic power of outdoor recreation at the core of St. Clair’s campaign, his candidacy is a test of whether the business of the outdoors really can unite our country’s bitter partisan divides.
It’s a clear March Sunday in Farmington, Maine, and St. Clair is greeting guests at the first of the day’s three campaign events. About 30 people have appeared at an afternoon house party in the slanting, book-filled 1857 farmhouse of O. Henry Prize–winning writer Bill Roorbach. The guests removing their shoes at the front door include several college professors and the mother of Olympic gold-medalist snowboarder Seth Wescott. St. Clair, in socks, stands next to a large woodstove. He is tall—six foot five—with thick dark hair and a trim black beard and is wearing a shawl-collared fisherman’s sweater.
“I grew up in Dover-Foxcroft,” he says, a Maine town practically in the middle of the state. “My parents were back-to-the-landers who had $5,000 in savings and wanted to buy 30 acres,” St. Clair tells the crowd “Maine was the only place you could do that.” That was 1974, and his parents spent several years clearing their property and building a saltbox house with hand tools. Lucas and Hannah were born in 1978 and raised in that house, without running water or electricity. “My mother describes her parenting style as ‘benign neglect,’” he says, to laughs. “It was a magical way to grow up, playing in the woods from dawn to dusk, using our imaginations, and lighting a kerosene lamp to read.”
In variations of the stump speech I saw him give five times over two days, he always starts with the story of his austere northern Maine childhood—the family was on food stamps for a few years in the 1980s—in order to combat his opponents chief critique that he is a rich pretty boy “from away,” as they say in Maine.
As St. Clair continues his speech, he talks about how the twins’ parents split up in 1983. “A year later,” he says, “my mother was hitchhiking home from her job as a waitress at the Dexter Motor Lodge when she was picked up by a beekeeper named Burt, who gave her some honey and beeswax. She used the wax to make stove polish and candles and eventually hit on the idea of lip balm. The rest, as they say, is history.” That history: Quimby grew the company over the next 23 years and in 2007 sold it to Clorox for $913 million.
By then, St. Clair had hiked the Appalachian Trail, taken a NOLS semester course in Patagonia, attended culinary school in London, owned a restaurant in Maine, and ridden his motorcycle to Seattle to woo his now-wife, Yemaya, whom he’d met during the NOLS semester. The couple started a family in Washington, and St. Clair worked as a fly-fishing guide and sommelier before deciding to move back to Maine to take over the foundering Katahdin Woods and Waters campaign.
What worked in that campaign—and what he’s banking on in this one—is that St. Clair is warm and funny in front of crowds, even as he takes on serious issues. On gun control questions: “I’m a duck hunter, and by law I’m only allowed three shells in my gun,” he says. “That’s a gun control law we’ve been living with for years. So why do we allow people to put 45 high-caliber bullets into a semi-automatic weapon? Are we prioritizing the lives of ducks over our children?”
It’s not charisma or wit that will get him elected in Maine, though—it’s a focus on jobs and the economy. Northern Maine is Trump country—he won the 2nd District by 11 points, elected by those most impacted by the decline of shoe, textile, and paper manufacturing jobs. Once an employer of 5,000 people, East Millinocket’s Great Northern Paper Company closed in 2008; by 2014, the population had plunged 42 percent. Parts of the district have had unemployment rates pushing 20 percent.
St. Clair’s solution, and the heart of his stump speech, is business innovation based on Maine’s strengths, much like his mother’s success in building a small Maine agricultural business into an international brand. “Maine’s natural beauty is a powerful, renewable resource,” he says. Upon taking over the monument campaign in 2011, one of St. Clair’s first actions was commissioning an economic analysis to prove that donating the land to the park service could revitalize the region’s faltering economy. That analysis, by Headwaters Economics of Bozeman, Montana, found that Katahdin Woods and Waters could create as many as 450 jobs and spur “new travel and tourism activity; the ability to attract people, retirees, and businesses across a range of sectors; economic growth including higher-wage jobs; and increases in non-labor sources of income.”
In just two years, that prediction is already proving true. Hotel bookings are up. Long-slumping real estate sales have risen 30 percent for two years running. New businesses are opening, including two guide services, Millinocket’s Turn the Page bookstore and wine bar, and the Design Lab, a four-person marketing firm that opened in 2015 in a former Oddfellows Hall. St. Clair likes to say that the outdoor recreation economy isn’t just “making burritos and renting bicycles; it’s attracting high-end businesses whose employees want to live in Northern Maine for the outdoor recreation lifestyle. Design Lab moved to the northwoods even though Maine has the 49th slowest internet in the country.” Everyone in the room nods.
The most pressing topic for primary voters, however, is how he plans to beat current officeholder Bruce Poliquin. Reelected in 2016, Poliquin is the only Republican congressman in New England and a stepping-stone in the Democrats’ quest to take control of the House this fall. Polls show St. Clair in a neck-and-neck race for the June 12 primary with Jared Golden, a state representative and Marine Corps veteran of the gritty sort the Democratic Party has been grooming to recapture voters who flipped from Obama to Trump in the last election. If there’s any edge in the race, it’s that the Bangor Daily News, the region’s largest newspaper, last week endorsed St. Clair based on his work on the monument.
“We ran the monument campaign directly at Bruce Poliquin, and we won,” St. Clair tells 100 people assembled in a school lunchroom for the Franklin County Democrats’ monthly meeting. “Most of our campaign staff worked on that initiative. We know his vulnerabilities. We know his staff. We know how he behaves. We know how to beat him.”
Poliquin, along with senators Olympia Snow and Susan Collins, opposed Katahdin Woods and Waters, as did Maine’s bombastic Tea Party governor Paul LePage, who still wants to rescind it. Only Chellie Pingree, the Democrat representing Maine’s more urban, coastal 1st District, supported the plan. Mike Michaud, a former Great Northern Paper Company worker and Democrat who represented the 2nd District before Poliquin, also opposed it—at least he did at first. “After listening to Lucas, I said that I wanted to see an economic analysis to see what kind of impact a monument might have.” When he did, Michaud was convinced.
It’s those conversations that St. Clair is banking on—even if they’re not always pretty. Upon purchasing the land she intended to donate to the park service, one of Quimby’s first acts was to close it to uses the paper companies had always allowed but were incongruent to her idea of a national park: hunting, snowmobiling, and leases on vacation cottages. Quimby evicted people from cottages that had been in their family for decades, and then burned them down. One cottage belonged to Peter Ellis’ father. St. Clair traveled to meet Peter and his brother John in the family market’s walk-in cooler. It was one of hundreds of meetings he scheduled with people living near the proposed park.
“If someone is close enough to drive their finger into your chest, they are close enough to have a conversation,” St. Clair says of those meetings. Of the dozens of people I interviewed for this story, every one of them pointed out St. Clair’s remarkable unflappability and eagerness to communicate even with angry opponents. “I always try to focus on the 80 percent we agree on,” he says.
It’s a trait St. Clair has had since he was a boy. “Lucas was always an optimist,” Quimby says. “I ask him if criticism from opponents bothers him. He says, ‘No, they just don’t know me yet. If they knew me, they’d have a different opinion.’”
St. Clair convinced his mother to reinstate hunting and snowmobiling on half the land. “That was the turning point for me and a lot of people,” Peter Ellis says. “After a lot of discussion, I felt like I could trust that the park would do right by locals.” Eventually, when Zinke showed up, the Millinocket Chamber of Commerce wrote a letter in support. St. Clair’s campaign rallied supporters to show the interior secretary how much the monument was wanted. Even Congressman Michaud, the former East Millinocket mill worker, came around. “Lucas did a great job addressing people’s concerns. I’m glad it was designated a monument.”
On my last day on the campaign trail with St. Clair, I witness the happy warrior in person. It’s the second-to-last stop of this three-day, ten-stop swing: a visit to a popsicle stick and medical swab factory in Guilford. What St. Clair and his field manager expected would be a standard hard-hat tour of the factory floor turned into a formal, and tense, audience with the company’s CFO, president, and co-owner of the 100-year-old business.
When we arrive, we are ushered into the conference room to talk to company CFO Scott Wellman, who is as tall as Lucas but with a shaven head. Wearing a white button-down shirt, Wellman gives us a quick rundown of the company and its problems: finding people to work (“People come in for two weeks, and then they quit”), electricity (which is exorbitantly expensive), and locating supplies of birch trees for the popsicle sticks (a byproduct of logging evergreens for paper and lumber—a sputtering industry in Maine, as St. Clair well knows). “We wanted to know where you stand on things,” Wellman says.
“Power isn’t going to get cheaper,” St. Clair says. “There will be a carbon tax in my lifetime—it’s happening in Canada; it’s happening in the European Union. We have to stay ahead of the curve and invest in things like wind, solar, and biomass generators.”
Then James Cartwright, the company co-owner, brings up the new monument. “I’m 62 years old. I’ve seen every damn tree in the state,” he says. “If you were going to pick 100,000 acres in Maine to make a park, that’s the last goddamn place I’d pick. The only thing up there is eight-inch-wide spruce trees.”
Suddenly, St. Clair is grinning. It’s the same argument Governor LePage had used when asking for the monument to be rescinded, telling a congressional committee that tourists would never visit the monument, which was in “the mosquito area.”
“You should come up there with me sometime,” St. Clair says, smiling. “Wassataquoik Stream is the most remote stream in the state, beautiful, with granite substrate. There are 7,000 acres of silver maple spanning the river.”
“If it was on the coastline somewhere, it could have been so much better for business,” Cartwright says. “Look at all the shops and hotels around Acadia [National Park.]”
“I think it’ll come,” says St. Clair, hitting his stride. “In 2016, 700 people drive Loop Road. In 2017, after monument status, 30,000 people drove it.” He describes how four new businesses have opened, and how, already, real estate sales and prices have risen and bookings are up at area hotels. “The folks at Shin Pond Village didn’t like me at all,” St. Clair says, referring to a hotel catering to snowmobilers. “We figured out a path forward together, and now they are big fans of the monument. And I’m big fans of theirs because they were willing to take the time and have open and honest conversations.”
Cartwright nods and says, “Right,” his demeanor softening.
“At the end of the day, a lot of this is about trust,” St. Clair says. “I want people to think I’m an honest broker. I’m sure there are things we disagree on.”
“What gave you that impression?” Wellman says, and everyone laughs, the tension gone. “Whoever is representing the 2nd District, we want to be able to call them,” he says. “It sounds like you’d be the same way.”
St. Clair is late for his next appearance and hustles to the car. “That was great,” he tells me, a swagger in his step. “It doesn’t get much more fun than that.”
The outdoor recreation economy is officially a big deal. On Wednesday, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released numbers detailing the economic power of the outdoor recreation industry, showing it comprises 2 percent ($373.7 billion) of the entire 2016 U.S. Gross Domestic Product.
It’s an impressive figure that puts it on the scale of industries like construction (4.3 percent); legal services (1.3 percent); agriculture, including farming, forestry, and fishing (1 percent); and, most significantly, extractive industries like mining, oil, and gas (1.4 percent). The report also stipulates that the outdoor industry is growing by 3.8 percent, a faster rate than the overall economy (2.8 percent).
The BEA report was two years in the making, initiated when President Obama signed the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act. Signed in 2016, it directed the federal agency to measure the outdoor economy with the same tools it uses to chart other industries and the economy as a whole. “We’ve wanted our industry to be counted as a discrete sector of the economy for more than a decade now,” says Amy Roberts, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA). “We are really pleased to have data that allows us to talk about our industry in the same ways that other industries that use public lands are discussed.”
Wait, I thought we already had numbers for the size of the outdoor industry?
The BEA’s report differs from the OIA’s own 2017 report, which said that outdoor recreation was $887 billion in size. Both reports measured the breadth of outdoor recreation—from outdoor equipment manufacturing and retail, to recreation businesses like ski resorts and fishing guiding services, to travel expenses like lodging and gas. The big difference was in methodology. In addition to the $373 billion GDP figure, the BEA also measured gross output from the outdoor recreation economy, a figure that totaled $673 billion, and is as close as it gets to an apples-to-apples comparison with the OIA report. There are two big differences between the OIA and BEA approaches, however. The BEA report did not measure the revenue generated from apparel and equipment manufactured overseas (the lion’s share of outdoor gear), though it did account for the revenue generated when that gear was sold at retail.
Perhaps more important, the BEA did not measure travel expenses or spending on recreation trips less than 50 miles from home. “We know that two-thirds of all outdoor recreation happens within those 50 miles,” says Roberts, who says that difference is likely to blame for the discrepancy between the BEA and OIA figure.
What exactly is the outdoor recreation industry?
The report broke down the outdoor economy into three sections: “conventional core activities” (things like bicycling, hiking, hunting), “other core activities” (like agritourism, outdoor festivals, and even amusement parks), and “supporting activities” (travel, government, construction).
The core activities we typically think about when we think of the outdoor economy make up nearly 40 percent of the industry total. By far the largest sector was the motorized vehicle industry, which was valued at roughly $60 billion. That was followed by the boating and fishing industry, hunting and shooting, the equestrian industry, and, finally, what the report called “other conventional outdoor recreation activities”—backpacking, climbing, and other outdoor gear-related sports—were valued at $10 billion, well behind the hook-and-bullet industries.
Granted, a custom RV, sprinter, or bass boat can run tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. But the discrepancy will no doubt cause some controversy and a bit of reflection within the industry—many hiker, bikers, and climbers barely even think of hunters and ATVers as being in the same category. But some hope the report will bring the various cultures and user groups together. “Today especially, people within those cultures pop across the boundaries all the time,” says Luis Benitez, director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. “I have a gun safe, I hunt, I fly-fish, hike, climb, I also have a dirt bike. So the time has come to bring all those together.”
Indeed, Roberts, the OIA’s executive director, notes that the loud and effective pushback in 2017 on Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz to sell off public lands was so effective in killing the bill largely because it was led by sportsman’s groups. “It shows that to protect public lands we need to be unified,” she says.
So the government did some math—what’s the big deal?
It makes a big difference that this is a number derived from an established and trusted government agency and not a private industry association. The OIA could publish as many detailed reports as it wants. That doesn’t mean that its number could be used by civil servants as they make decisions that concern the land people recreate on. “Land managers haven’t been able to gauge the positive impacts on the economy for recreation,” says Steve Barker, co-founder of the travel gear company Eagle Creek and former interim executive director of the OIA. “They knew how many board feet were taken out, or how much the mining revenue was, but now they’ll be able to look at the impact of recreation in these communities.”
What’s more, the number gives a solid comparison with other industries. Before, activists and conservationists could only point to a number derived by the OIA. (The equivalent of Exxon Mobil touting all the great things that the American Petroleum Institute said about the industry.) Now, the industry knows where it stands. “In the past we haven’t been recognized as a viable part of the economy,” Barker says. “Now we can show that we are, and that we’re growing faster than the overall economy.”
How do we turn these numbers into more recreation opportunities?
Roberts notes that the foremost opportunity presented by the bill is to pressure Congress to restore funding to recreation opportunities on public lands. “With these numbers we can show that investing in outdoor rec will spur the economy,” she says. “The upcoming infrastructure bill is a great opportunity to build trails and keep campgrounds open. Putting dollars into outdoor recreation infrastructure, especially in rural areas that have been suffering from the decline in extraction industries, is a smart way to rebuild those economies.”
Former Black Diamond president, Peter Metcalf, who now serves as a board member for several conservation organizations, agrees. “We need a large, organized, pro recreation, pro public lands campaign,” he says. “It should be funded by a pro-public lands PAC. We need several telegenic talking heads who can take this message to TV and radio in places that are impacted by public lands. The underlying narrative must be that these numbers are larger and more sustainable than the contributions of dying legacy industries.”
The outdoor industry is poised to get a big cash infusion from tax cuts, along with every other business in the country. Both the Senate and House tax bills recently passed by Congress aim to lower the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent, effectively dumping billions of dollars into the laps of business. For outdoor companies, though, the money comes with a catch: Public lands were sacrificed in the deal-making to get those lower rates.
To say the tax bills are controversial is a huge understatement. Just 29 percent of voters approve of it, and the Senate’s 500-page document, riddled with loopholes, was handed out to lawmakers just six hours before the vote, with whole pages crossed out by hand and notes scribbled in the margin. It passed at 2 a.m. by two votes. The Senate and House versions were conferenced this week and go to a final vote next week. Trump hopes to sign the bill before Christmas.
The outdoor industry has been quiet, or least reserved, on its stance. “It’s a mixed bag at best,” says Alex Boian, vice president of government affairs for the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), which has no official position on the bill. OIA was opposed, however, to the way in which three beloved pieces of public land were seemingly traded for votes. Just before the Senate vote, Trump cut Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, a longtime request from Utah’s Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. The bill also includes legislation that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, which was seen as a way to secure a vote from Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. “It looks transactional, and I don’t use that lightly,” says Boian. “It’s bad lands management policy.”
It could be argued that outdoor companies are getting a fat check at the cost of public lands. If that’s the case, is it worth it? And what exactly are gear companies getting in return?
Aside from the public lands crisis the bill has already created, it’s not clear how, or if, it will help the outdoor industry as a whole, or the shoppers who keep it afloat. The major Republican article of faith is that lowering taxes will lead companies to raise wages, hire more people, and invest in more technologies, leading to economic growth—the so-called trickle-down effect. However, in a recent University of Chicago survey of 38 prominent economists across the ideological spectrum, only one said the proposed tax cuts would yield substantial economic growth.
Most of the companies we contacted—from The North Face to Solomon to Columbia—declined to comment, citing the complexity and uncertainty of a bill that was still in progress until a couple days ago. A spokesperson for Patagonia, currently embroiled in a public relations war with both Interior Secretary Zinke and the House Committee on Natural Resources over the dismemberment of Bears Ears, simply saidthe company opposes the bill. Company CEO Rose Marcario had penned a statement against the tax plan, they said, but chose not to publish it in order to keep the focus on the national monument campaign.
Steve Barker, a former OIA president and founder of Eagle Creek Travel Gear, says companies will probably spend the money paying back stocks, paying down debt, and increasing executive bonuses. “They aren’t likely to increase hiring,” he says. “They also won’t likely make capitol improvements—with most gear now made overseas, there is little need.”
In that area, some gear companies did successfully push Congress to remove a provision that would have raised taxes on goods manufactured overseas. The so-called “border-adjustment tax” was struck from the bills in July after pressure from companies like Nike and Columbia, potentially saving millions of dollars. But the other angle the outdoor industry needs to consider is how it will impact their customers.
The tax-reform bill is expected to increase health insurance costs, reduce credits for tuition loans, and remove city and state tax deductions—in other words, it would hurt many young, college-educated people on the coasts. That’s a core base of customers for the industry. “If they’re uncertain about their finances, the typical gear buyer might make due with older gear or skip the annual ski trip,” says former sporting-goods retail magnate Ken Gart, of Gart Brothers and the 140-shop conglomerate Specialty Sports Venture.
Many of these customers are also the people most upset by the government’s recent attacks on public land—among the 2.8 million who wrote in to support the national monuments. For customers, and thus for companies, the tax package created a moral dilemma when the Trump administration bargained away Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That’s why Dan Abrams, co-owner of apparel maker Flylow, believes that if companies profit from the package, the industry should use some of that money to defend public lands. “I’m proposing we donate the savings to projects that help with that agenda.”
Companies like Patagonia, The North Face, and Arc’teryx are already doing that, either through outright donations or by funding lawsuits. (So is REI, but it’s not subject to the new tax policy due to its co-op structure.) Abrams says it would be wise for the industry to do so collectively. “It’s important that outdoor companies show our customers we care about the public lands where they use our gear.”
“No amount of economic growth is worth giving away ANWR to the oil companies,” says Barker, the former OIA president who now advocates to protect the refuge. “Once they get their drill bits into it, it’s never going to be the same. We need to fight for those lands with money.”
In other words, the outdoor industry needs to sign Trump’s Christmas bonus check right over to our public lands—or to the people who will defend them.
After months of speculation and hard negotiating, the Outdoor Retailer (OR) trade show is heading to Denver. On Thursday, Visit Denver and OR show owner Emerald Expositions signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing that, starting in January 2018, Denver’s Colorado Convention center will host three shows a year: a winter snow show, Summer Outdoor Retailer, and the new Outdoor Retailer November, aimed at the soft goods market. The deal may also pave the way for a fourth outdoor industry show, the Grassroots Connect, to follow, though terms of the agreement have not yet been finalized.
“Outdoor Retailer chose Denver for its new home because it was the undeniable choice of the industry,” says Marisa Nicholson, OR show director. “Denver and the state of Colorado are passionate about protecting and nurturing outdoor recreation, [which is] critical to the growth of our industry.” Each show is expected to bring 20,000 attendees the city; it’s estimated that, combined, they will pump $45 million into the local economy each year.
The announcement comes almost six months after OR’s organizers and biggest attendees decided to leave the Salt Lake City location they’d used for 21 years in protest over Utah elected officials’ stance on public lands, especially the newly designated Bears Ears Monument. The break with Utah was seen as a galvanizing moment for an industry overdue to enter the political arena, and some feared that major players would opt out of the industry’s premiere gathering if it went to the highest bidder rather than a state that supported public lands and conservation. And that, in turn, could have been the death knell for the show.
“Orlando’s Super Show was three or four times bigger than Outdoor Retailer, and once Nike and other big companies pulled out, it died pretty swiftly,” says Dan Nordstrom, CEO of Outdoor Research. “The cracks were already in the edifice last year once companies started boycotting OR over Utah politics. Companies might find it more cost effective to wine and dine retailers directly. It would be easy to lose the whole thing.”
Many in the industry lobbied for-profit Emerald Expositions, to steer OR to Colorado not only because of its position as a premiere outdoor adventure destination, but also as a reward for it’s more progressive and balanced approach to public lands and attractive business climate. That they were able to land it, say many of those close to the negotiations, was the result of a lot of sweat and sleepless nights on the part of Luis Benitez, director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.
The former alpine guide has six summits of Everest on his resume as well as teaching gigs with the Wharton School of Business. Those who witnessed his work say that he has been tireless in his diligence to bring OR to Colorado. “He’s the most hardworking guy I’ve ever seen in government service,” says Ken Gart, Colorado bicycle czar and former co-owner of Gart Sports. “He was tireless because he believed that the show belongs in Colorado. Colorado is a purple state politically with a purple governor. [He believes] that in these partisan times, outdoor recreation can be a way forward.”
Benitez says the show is crucial to uniting the industry as a force for conservation. “The outdoor recrecation community is a significant economic driver, but it also can lead the national dialogue regarding climate change, access to public lands, and the promotion of health and wellness,” says Benitez. “Business is that crucial middle ground that has been disappearing from politics.” He is also looking to revitalize the show by making it more inclusive of the general public—while the Outdoor Retailer show has traditionally been open only to those directly involved in the industry, Benitez would like the public to get more involved. “Letting more people in the building is an easy way to make the show more relevant.”
While Denver was the outdoor industry’s top choice of location, it wasn’t necessarily Emerald’s. For one, Denver’s convention center and hotel sector is booming—for many of the dates OR needs, the city runs an 85 percent hotel occupancy, says Richard Scharf, president of Visit Denver. “Some of that business is booked out into 2031 right now, so creating room was a major challenge.”
Emerald requested that Denver clear dates for OR for the next 30 years, so Scharf’s team had a huge puzzle to solve. Boosted by Benitez and the governor’s and mayor’s offices, which both badly wanted to land the OR shows, Scharf started working in March 2017 to move more than 40 clients. Visit Denver convened twice weekly meetings with more than 30 downtown Denver hotels to find the 6,500 hotel rooms they’d need on the peak nights.
Initially, Emerald also believed that the Colorado Convention Center wasn’t large enough to house the 900,000 square feet that OR requires. (Even Salt Lake City traditionally erected tents to accommodate all vendors.) So Scharf reconfigured the OR floor plan, creating space for the show without resorting to outdoor event tents. They also brought the trade unions to the table to help negotiate—an unprecedented move for the Colorado Convention Center. “Kudos to the unions,” says Benitez, who can’t say which ones participated due to confidentiality agreements. “They were able to understand how important this is to our state.”
But it was Benitez who brought everyone to the table and lit a fire under them. “He was an orchestrator, cheerleader, and bulldog when he needed to be. He was on the phone as many as 10 times a day with Visit Denver to urge them to get this figured out,” Gart says. “It’s a big-time deal.”
Nordstrom points out that Benitez’ official post with the state was also essential. “In the absence of that outdoor czar position, it’s hard to say that Colorado would have had that focal point to have gotten the deal done.” Colorado, Utah, and Washington already have state directors of outdoor recreation, with several others expected to join their ranks soon. Vermont recently formed a task force to bolster outdoor rec opportunities, and North Carolina has established an outdoor czar position within the state’s Commerce Department. Just yesterday, the Oregon legislature passed a bill to create an office of outdoor recreation in that state. With the clout shown by Benitez in Colorado to land OR, more are sure to follow.
Benitez, 44, is the son of an Ecuadorian aerospace engineer and an American primary school art teacher. He grew up in St. Louis, where he spent most days after school stocking shelves in the outdoor shop his grandfather owned for almost 40 years. In high school, he spent his weekends camping and rock climbing in the Ozarks, and in college started working for Outward Bound, where he loved teaching climbing and mountaineering but even more so the school’s emphasis on personal growth and empowerment.
“We like to tease Luis, because he is so earnest” says Erik Weihenmayer, a blind climber whom Benitez guided to the summit of Everest in 2001 and has since partnered with on 10 different expeditions. “He’s got a very nurturing side that most mountaineers seem to lack.” The Weihenmayer expedition helped launch his seven summits guiding career and also ushered him into the orbit of big business—in the go-go 2000s it wasn’t unusual for him to travel to training climbs with his CEO clients on their private jets.
By 2006, Benitez had worked himself into the role of director of operations for New Zealand-based mountaineering company Adventure Consultants, and had notched more than 20 ascents on the seven summits. The events of September 30 at Cho Oyu basecamp in Tibet would alter the course of his guiding career, however. On that day, Chinese border guards opened fire on a group of 75 Tibetans fleeing over Nangpa La pass into Nepal, killing 17-year old nun Kunsang Namgyal and arresting a dozen more, mostly children, who couldn’t make the border.
Though at least 100 western climbers and guides witnessed the event, Benitez was the only one to speak up, penning a blog post via satellite. A few other guides were furious, telling Benitez that he was putting everyone’s permits at risk. One, he says, told him, “If I were you, I’d get out of town.”
Benitez resigned his post as Adventure Consultants GM, realizing he’d now hold the company back. “I was shocked at the ethics of the guiding community,” he says. “That wasn’t the way I came up guiding at Outward Bound.” He later testified about the incident in front of the Spanish Supreme court, which brought crimes against humanity charges against the Chinese President.
“Luis has a proven moral compass, based on his teaching work and on blowing the whistle in Tibet,” says former Black Diamond CEO Peter Metcalf. “He’s also used to organizing military style assaults on peaks, meaning he has proven leadership experience.” It’s no surprise, he says, that he has landed OR—he has the industry’s best interests in mind, and represents the right state. “I really applaud their efforts,” says Metcalf. “It’s a useful example in contrast to Utah. With all its oil and gas development, Colorado isn’t an immaculately-conceived state on these issues. Hickenlooper has figured out a very difficult middle path between energy development and land protection. Hopefully Utah will get there soon.”
Metcalf has been spending a lot of time talking to businesspeople and political people about what really transpired in the fight over OR in Utah. “My heart goes out to those in Salt Lake who bent over backwards to accommodate and support OR over the years. The majority of the state doesn’t understand what they’ve lost,” he says. “The trade show is the tip of an iceberg for the outdoor industry in Utah. We have a massive ski industry, and a huge number of outdoor equipment manufacturers who will continue to fight for public lands.”
Metcalf was the primary driver behind Outdoor Retailer’s exodus from Utah. In the fall of 2016, Metcalf had retired from Black Diamond and taken a position as director of the Salt Lake City Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank. The Obama administration had just created Bears Ears National Monument. The backlash from the Utah delegation was fierce. Metcalf attended a December press conference in Salt Lake City where the governor and entire Utah delegation to Washington declared their intention to do everything in their power to block the new monument. “It was an all out war on the monument and the public lands, and I thought ‘enough is enough,’” says Metcalf.
Over the holidays, Metcalf began formulating his plan to use the Outdoor retailer show for leverage in the fight for public lands. “The goal was never to take the show from Utah,” he says. “It was to put some backbone into the outdoor industry.”
On January 10, on the opening day of the Winter Outdoor Retailer Trade show, Metcalf published an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune calling for the show to leave Utah if the state’s leaders didn’t change their stance. “We should respond with our dollars, with our conventioneers, with our money, and take this show to a state that is much more aligned with our values,” he wrote. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard followed with his own salvo, but Utah Governor Gary Herbert seemed unmoved. On February 3, he signed a bill asking President Trump to rescind Bears Ears, and Patagonia announced its boycott. Arc’teryx followed suit, as did a half dozen others.
On February 16—after a contentious phone call with Governor Herbert— the Outdoor Industry Association and Emerald both announced that OR would leave Salt Lake City after the summer 2017 show. Colorado, led by Benitez, had begun to strategize about landing the show as early as mid-January. “My initial instinct was that OR should stay and fight, but when it became obvious that Utah’s leadership won’t budge, it made sense to get the ball rolling,” say Benitez. He encouraged governor Hickenlooper to publicly lobby for the show. “We need more public lands, not less,” he said at the time.
Denver wasn’t the only city that wanted OR. Portland, Reno, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Indianapolis submitted bids to hold the show. What really worried industry leaders, though, were the bids of cities like Orlando, Las Vegas, and Anaheim, California—all of which have huge convention centers but very little interest or regard for the outdoor industry culture or its budding political aspirations.
That’s when Benitez began pulling strings with industry players like Gart and Nordstrom. When they realized that Emerald was about to launch a public offering that would eventually net them $264 million, it seemed the danger was real that Emerald would go to the highest bidder. He convinced Nordstrom and a few other CEOs to write an open letter that might help sway the show to Denver. “Denver is unique on the current list of possible venues in having both a central travel hub as well as the outdoor recreation assets vital to the formula that has made the show so successful during its tenure in Utah,” they wrote in a press release. The subtext, says Nordstrom, was that it was a message to Wall Street analysts that if Emerald went with short term profits over long term viability, a chunk of their business might soon whither.
Five months and countless hours later, the work paid off and Benitez has big plans for the show. One possibility is open the trade show up to the public on the last day. Another is to increase public participation in the political and cultural events that go on behind closed doors at the event. “I’d like to see a sort of OR University that addresses issues like how to run a business, sustainable manufacturing, trade issues,” he says. “We need to incubate the next generation of Chouinards and Metcalfs.” The show should also invigorate conversations about inclusivity, climate change, and public lands he says. “These issues are so important we need all the participation we can get.”
That sort of big-tent thinking has inevitably spawned musings about a future political career for Benitez amongst some of his allies, including a possible turn as Colorado’s next Lieutenant Governor. Gart, for one, likes his principles. “Luis represents standing for something. He is open to working with motorsports community and the fly fishing community alike because he is so passionate. Willing to drive halfway across the state to give a speech and then drive back.”
“He’s a mountaineer,” Says Mark Udall, the former Colorado Senator and Benitez’ boss when he was executive director of Colorado Outward Bound. “You don’t climb a mountain by being a pessimist. One of the most important things in politics is a sense of optimism, and he has that.”
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