The iconic brand has long been the conscience of the outdoor industry, forsaking hefty profits to do the right thing. Now the company is going to war against the Trump administration over protections for public land in a bid to become a serious political player—which happens to be very good for sales.
On February 16 of this year, the outdoor industry transformed. This wasn’t due to a first ascent, a remarkable new piece of gear, or some surprise merger of iconic companies. Rather, what happened that morning was the most mundane of modern American rituals: a conference call. Around 15 minutes into the conversation, a 52-year-old businesswoman from Staten Island, New York, declared war on the ruling party of the United States of America.
The call included Utah’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert, the leadership of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), and top executives from Patagonia, the North Face, and REI. They had convened to discuss the Utah congressional delegation’s efforts to roll back protections for America’s federally managed public land—specifically, President Obama’s designation of the Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.4-million-acre swath of high desert considered sacred by local tribes. For the outdoor industry, attacks on public land constitute a dire threat, since that land provides the 610-million-acre ballpark for gearmakers’ $887 billion game. Among the Republican establishment, public land has become a primary target. In the party’s 2016 platform, the GOP demanded the transfer of some federally managed land to the states.
The stakes for the conference call may have been high, but expectations were not. Salt Lake City had hosted the industry’s semiannual trade show, Outdoor Retailer, since the mid-1990s, with the event drawing some $45 million to the state each year. That kind of money can buy influence, but within Washington’s halls of power, the outdoor industry had long been seen as a self-licking ice cream cone: easily pleased with itself and unable to withstand even mild heat.