California companies lobby Congress for wilderness

Delivering the message that wilderness is good for business, I recently joined four outdoor industry representatives in lobbying congressional representatives on behalf of legislation that would protect 300,000 acres of public land on California’s North Coast.
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Delivering the message that wilderness is good for business, I recently joined four outdoor industry representatives in lobbying congressional representatives on behalf of legislation that would protect 300,000 acres of public land on California's North Coast. Our group spent two full days in Washington, D.C., explaining to legislative staff why wilderness is important to outdoor industry companies. The trip was organized by Wild Alliance (www.wildalliance.org), a network of outdoor industry companies committed to securing new wilderness designations in California.

I represented The Conservation Alliance and joined employees from Marmot, Patagonia, Prana and Wilderness Press as we lobbied in support of the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act. The bill would permanently protect California's King Range and Lost Coast, the longest undeveloped stretch of coastline in the Lower 48. It would also add acres to the Trinity Alps, Siskiyou and Yolla Bolly Wilderness areas. The bill was introduced by Rep. Mike Thompson, with a companion bill co-sponsored by Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

Our group met with the staff of 10 members of Congress and emphasized that outdoor industry customers need protected places in which to use the products their companies make and sell. Recognizing the value of wilderness to our industry, The Conservation Alliance has given more than $100,000 to California wilderness efforts over the past four years.

Each company that participated had its own reasons for speaking out in support of the legislation.

“The Lost Coast is only a few hours from the Marmot offices, so it's an important place for us,” Marmot Warranty Manager David McRobie told legislative staff members. “I once encountered an elk on a trail there that refused to move. I just sat and watched the elk for a half hour.”

Laura Keresty, director of marketing and operations for Berkeley, Calif.-based Wilderness Press, had similar reasons for participating in the lobbying trip. "Wilderness is in our name, so it's important to our company," Keresty said. "Our customers buy our books and maps to enhance their wilderness adventures. More wilderness only helps our business."

Other participants represented Southern California companies. Though they reside far from the lands that would be protected by the bill, these companies see a broader value in wilderness. "California Wilderness helps Patagonia attract good employees," said Eve Bould, Patagonia's director of environmental communications. "Whether it's in our backyard, or on the opposite end of the state, accessible wilderness increases everyone's quality of life."

There is an obvious link between wilderness and the outdoor industry. But protected lands benefit local economies across the board. A recent study shows that California Wilderness areas generate an additional $44 per acre per year of spending in nearby communities -- contributing nearly one job for every 550 acres of wilderness. As many rural economies shift from resource extraction to recreation and tourism, wilderness has become an undeniable asset.

Because wilderness is often a controversial issue -- wilderness protection prohibits logging, mining, oil and gas exploration, and motorized recreation -- our group encountered some resistance. "Some of these elected officials simply oppose wilderness on ideological terms," said Devaki Murch, marketing coordinator for Prana. "But we tried to stay focused on our message, and explain that the legislation has no formal opposition."

Murch noted that the business delegation may have carried some additional clout. "In one meeting, the senator's staffer smiled when I mentioned Prana, and said she has several pairs of our shorts," Murch said. "She wasn't a big fan of wilderness, but she sure liked our products!"

After two muggy days, our group headed home, inspired to remain active in the effort to protect California's last wild places. Few industries have as much to gain from protected wilderness as the specialty outdoor market. Even fewer produce dedicated employees who will take time to serve as spokespeople for wilderness. It is important that our industry remain active in conservation efforts. Just as wildlife needs protected lands for habitat, our companies and customers need wild places for recreation and solitude.

-- John Sterling is program director for The Conservation Alliance, www.conservationalliance.com.

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