As the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market trade show kicks off its first summer in Denver, Colo., the political and activist nature of the gathering and its organizer, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), is coming more clearly into view.

Public Lands Rush

OIA relocated its trade shows for 2018, including its annual Snow Show and the Outdoor Retailer show, to Denver from Salt Lake City following last year’s dustup over public lands issues. The trade association feuded with Utah elected officials who supported the U.S. Department of the Interior’s planned reduction of Bears Ears National Monument and called for more access to public lands for natural resource development.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, “an acrimonious phone call between industry leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert” ensued, with Herbert calling the industry’s demands an “ultimatum.”

“I guess we’re going to have to part ways,” Herbert said.

The public lands debate spilled over into the halls of Congress throughout 2017, as Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and the House Natural Resources Committee publicly sparred over the national monument reduction in statements and on social media. Chouinard ultimately rejected an offer from Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) to testify on the public lands debate.

A Western Wire review of OIA documents, social media, and planned agenda for its Summer Retailer convention revealed a political activist aim beyond claims of simply defending public lands.

“I think the real watershed moment was the engagement of the industry and our willingness to put our values on display and to make business decisions in line with those values,” OIA Executive Director Amy Roberts said. “We needed to have a unified industry, and once the decision to move to Denver was announced and the monument protections were rolled back, we saw that the industry was united in our disappointment.”

“That Utah’s most powerful elected officials supported the controversial reduction in protection for more than 2 million acres of culturally significant public lands came as no surprise,” Scott Willoughby wrote in an article for OIA in March. “From the governor’s mansion to Capitol Hill, such efforts continue the state’s long history of attacks against public lands management and funding.”

Willoughby charged Utah’s elected officials and the current administration with attempting to “create the legislative framework to turn America’s public lands over to states and private interests.”

“I think they’re still shocked that we called them on it and moved the show,” said Black Diamond Equipment founder Peter Metcalf. “It took a lot to do this. But it was a seminal moment. We stood up [for America’s public lands and waters], and look at us now.”

“Look at us, indeed. Just more than a year after that spark was ignited, the outdoor industry has galvanized as a political and economic fireball rolling forward with a new sense of unity and strength, spurred by a combination of unified values, economic muscle (2 percent of the national GDP, $887 billion in consumer spending and 7.6 million direct American jobs) and unprecedented member engagement,” Willoughby continued.

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

Activist Aims

Outdoor Retailer’s first Denver event, the Snow Show, opened in January.

“The beer is stronger, the peaks are taller and the recreation is higher,” said Conservation Colorado’s Maria Handley to contrast Denver to Salt Lake City as the venue for the trade show opener.

“If there’s any doubt that we made the right move coming to Colorado, I think it’s dispelled,” said John Sterling, Director of the Conservation Alliance.

To bolster their claims that the move was not as partisan as it first appeared, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was invited to speak on Colorado and public lands issues.

“Clean air, clean water, public lands,” Hickenlooper said, “that’s about the most nonpartisan position you could have.”

But that week members of the outdoor industry and environmental groups presented their strategies for political campaign messaging in the 2018 mid-term elections at an industry lunch hosted by OIA with presentations from activist groups like Center For Western Priorities (CWP) and the Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF).

Their mission: how to figure out messaging for a target audience that did not list outdoor industry objectives as a top-tier get-out-the-vote issue.

“Only 2 percent named anything relating to the environment in terms of having any bearing at all on their presidential vote. That included climate change, that included public lands, that included anything related to the environment. So if it’s only 2 percent, you’re never going to change those policies,” pollster Lori Weigel told the attendees.

Jennifer Rokala, Executive Director for CWP, told the attendees her group planned a public lands-based campaign in the midterm, building on messaging from the last two election cycles.

“CWP in 2014 and 2016 ran a campaign called ‘Winning the West,’ where we highlighted the fact that conservation and public lands is not a partisan issue in the West. We focused on Montana, Colorado, and Nevada,” Rokala said. “We’ll run a similar campaign in 2018 that will target candidates on both sides highlighting the fact that they can win unaffiliated vote, the swing voters who are neither Republican nor Democrat on a strong public lands position.”

House Natural Resources Committee/Facebook

As Western Wire noted in January, the luncheon presentation did not include voices from local groups within the West opposed to expanding public lands, such as those local residents, tribal members, and other elected officials who welcomed President Trump’s announcement to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in December 2018.

Patagonia and environmental organizations like the Wilderness Society upped the ante ahead of the January meeting, projecting clocks onto the Bureau of Land Management’s Colorado office and Denver’s Civic Center that showed the countdown until Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments’ new boundaries went into effect.

Brand Activism

OIA’s Roberts argued that many companies used their brands in promoting their side of the debate—organizing and calling for action, like the activism and social media pushes mentioned earlier, but also, more importantly, in voting.

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

Those efforts include OIA’s call-to-action for the “We Are Still In” movement that opposed the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, calls for 100 percent renewables by customers and member companies, and “scrutinizing the supply chain” of member companies.

“It’s great to be putting in solar arrays at your headquarters and sponsoring wind, but as a manufacturing company, you have a big supply chain, and that’s hands down your biggest impact,” said Ali Kenney, Burton’s Vice President of Global Strategy and Insights.

The upshot: companies and consumers need to “advocate”—and there is strength in numbers.

“Nowadays, the issues are so big that collaboration is absolutely mission critical. We aren’t going to move the needle unless we get other brands on board to help,” said Corey Simpson, a communications coordinator for Patagonia.

In May, OIA partnered with Protect Our Winters and Telluride Mountain film for a 4-day “climate leadership summit” in Telluride, Colo., that would showcase ways to “talk about climate change in the outdoor industry, examine the “policy landscape: good policy may be at your doorstep,” and discuss “industry carbon reduction goals and strategy.”

“The health of the outdoor industry is inexorably tied to the health of our planet. We know that we must advocate for effective climate policy while also reducing the impact of our business on the environment. But for many outdoor businesses, knowing where to start, what to do, and how to make an immediate difference can be baffling. Learn how to approach the challenges of global warming using scalable strategies that work – whether you’re an executive, sustainability or marketing professional, brand athlete or ambassador, or social influencer,” OIA wrote.

In May, OIA touted its “#ClimbTheHill” lobbying effort. “Our own @JessOIArec is at #ClimbTheHill with climbers and OIA members @accessfund + @americanalpine to lobby lawmakers on key outdoors issues—like LWCF. We love to see so many professional athletes and climbing advocates in DC to make their voices heard!” OIA tweeted.

The event was described as “lobby training” by a separate Twitter account.

In advance of this week’s Summer Retailer, OIA promoted a seminar on “Climate Solutions: Shared Supplier Project.”

“As we build out the OIA climate toolkit, we are exploring new and existing projects and programs around renewable energy procurement and carbon reduction to help support outdoor industry companies with their climate strategies and goals,” OIA wrote.

“If you are planning to attend this meeting, please watch the following webinar recording, Tackling Carbon Reduction in the Outdoor Industry – Clean by Design, NRDC,” the agenda states (emphasis in original). The webinar is designed by Natural Resources Defense Council, a group that received more than $14 million in grants from deep-pocketed philanthropies between 2011 and 2015, according to a recent study by Matthew Nisbet.

Nisbet, Professor of Communication Studies and Affiliate Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, analyzed more than half a billion dollars in “behind-the-scenes” grants distributed by 19 major environmental foundations to groups promoting renewable energy and opposing fossil fuels.

Retail Activism

This week at Summer Retailer, several events will continue the focus on public lands and activism.

Just as the trade shows opens, OIA tweeted, “During the final #OutdoorRetailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City, nearly 3,000 people marched to the state capitol to show their support for our public lands.”

On Monday the convention will feature a panel, “Finding Common Ground on Public Lands.” After finding little common ground on the public lands issue in its former host state—the move to Denver from Salt Lake City was entirely predicated upon a disagreement over a specific public lands issue—it is not clear whether the panel’s stated intent represents an attempt to return to dialogue or a chance to solidify its own activist posturing.

“Public lands are the backbone of the outdoor recreation economy, but there are many other industries that rely on public lands and waters. We all want the land to be healthy and sustainable, but utilize it in different, sometimes conflicting, ways,” the agenda for the panel states. “‘Finding Common Ground’ will explore the challenges, opportunities and some innovative pathways forward for oil and gas, agriculture, timber, Tribes and the outdoor recreation industries to find common ground on relevant public lands issues facing us today.”

Tuesday opens with a breakfast keynote on public lands sponsored by the Conservation Alliance entitled, “Defending Our Common Ground: American Public Land From Teddy Roosevelt To Donald Trump.” Author Timothy Egan, also an environmental and liberal political columnist with the New York Times, is the speaker.

That evening features a “Night of Stoke” film festival that demonstrates how to “inspire activism.”

“This summer’s event will focus on the theme “Our Stories, Our Lands,” highlighting the ongoing importance of protecting and preserving public lands,” the agenda states.

Pushing brand advocacy will wrap up the week.

“Does your brand stand for something, or nothing at all? Come for the free lunch, and stay to learn from the industry’s most successful advocates about aligning your brand values with important community and political issues,” the panel description reads. “Learn about the importance of listening through social media, navigating potential public relations issues, and how to become empowered in your role as a leader in the outdoors to take action and engage your community. The outdoor industry can be a driver for change. Your brand can lead the charge. Stand for something and make an impact. Join us in standing up as proud advocates for good.”