Guest Editorial: Economics, Wilderness, the Outdoor Industry, and Our Trade Show

A week ago last Sunday the Salt Lake Tribune published as its lead piece in the OpEd section an editorial I wrote with support from the B4W group of OIA. The piece was an economic rebuttal to Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and the Secretary of Interior Gail Norton's backroom deal to remove Wilderness Study Area protection from some 6 million acres of potential Utah Wilderness.

By Peter Metcalf

A week ago last Sunday the Salt Lake Tribune published as its lead piece in the OpEd section an editorial I wrote with support from the B4W group of OIA. The piece was an economic rebuttal to Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and the Secretary of Interior Gail Norton's backroom deal to remove Wilderness Study Area protection from some 6 million acres of potential Utah Wilderness. These two felt that neither the United States nor Utah could afford to have these lands off limits to mining, oil and gas development, lumbering, road building and other development. Never did they stop to look at the fact that human-powered recreation is its own economic engine and that our industry brings the two largest and most economically important trade shows to Utah each year. In addition to that, the Wasatch Front range has a higher concentration of climbing equipment/outdoor companies than any other single metropolitan area in the country employing directly and indirectly in the neighborhood of 500 people.

Utah's wilderness areas belong to all the people of the United States, not just Utah residents, and when the governor of the state that hosts the largest human-powered recreation trade show in the world moves from being passively negative to actively negative against wilderness, he is sending an incredibly offensive message to our industry and our trade show. The greatest leverage we as an industry may have in such matters is the power of the dollar and the marketing power of our presence. We, as an industry, send a strong message about place by the place we choose to meet. Discussions I have had with other Utah-based companies and OIA show a high degree of support for this concept.

I encourage each of you to take a few moments to consider both the issue of the economic value of wilderness and how it effects your business as well as where we, as an industry, hold our show. I believe it is time that we use our show's location as a means to negotiate for a state's support for wilderness initiatives and a reasonable degree of philosophical alignment. We don't have many other tools at our disposal and none as strong as this.

I encourage each of you to give this consideration and email your feelings to both OIA (who can forward it to the governor's office), as well as Peter Devin at Outdoor Retailer. Similarly, I encourage each of you to find ways to influence any other debates on wilderness and land preservation by giving it an economic perspective. Surely the extractive resource industries have been doing this and it is now time for all of us and our industry to do the same. It appears our economic sledgehammer, though more stealth-like, is actually larger.

The Letter:

From the Green River to Castleton Tower to the Indian Creek Canyon, large numbers of people regularly enjoy the serenity and beauty of Utah. It's no mystery why our state is home to some of the most active recreation spots in the country.

The people who live here enjoy these spots as much as the hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to our state each year to climb, hike, backpack, hunt, bike, camp, fish and participate in other outdoor recreation activities. Utah's special places are important to the quality of life of Utah residents and warrant permanent protections.

In addition, outdoor recreation contributes to the economies of communities located across our state through outdoor recreation gear shops, hotels, restaurants, tour guides, etc.

Wild and undeveloped places are the economic backbone of the outdoor recreation industry. Policymakers must recognize the economic values of public lands as a top priority, not a secondary consideration, when it comes to managing our public lands.

As the co-founder, CEO and president of a climbing equipment manufacturing company directly employing 250 people here in Salt Lake City, I have serious concerns about the recent behind-the-scenes agreements that Gov. Mike Leavitt cut with Interior Secretary Gayle Norton, which threaten wild lands in Utah. These agreements are designed to prevent public land managers from inventorying Utah lands for potential wilderness designation and establishing new Wilderness Study Areas. These are lands that support my business, our vendor's businesses, as well as the enormously popular outdoor recreation lifestyle of hundreds of thousands of Utah residents.

Leavitt's deals are jeopardizing the health of backcountry recreation destinations and outdoor businesses in Utah. How can our governor ignore the economic and quality-of-life benefits that these wild lands provide for our state? A recent Outdoor Industry Foundation report indicates that more than 1.3 million Utahns participate in outdoor recreation activities each year. That equals more than 80 percent of the state's population and makes Utah home to the third-most-active Americans in the country. Utah is also home to the second largest percentage of rock climbers per capita in the country, with nearly 90,000 participants.

This Leavitt-Interior settlement threatens rock climbing, canyoneering and other wilderness recreation destinations in Utah by changing the way these areas are currently managed and opens them up to harmful practices like oil and gas development.

In addition, the outdoor recreation industry generates $18 billion a year across the country and plays a key role in Utah's economy. According to the governor's own Office of Planning and Budget, tourism is one of the most important economic activities in the state.

In addition, the twice-a-year Outdoor Retailer trade shows are the two largest trade shows to come to this state each year. I worked hard to help get this show here some seven years ago and the governor should be on notice that there are many, myself included, who believe it is time to consider pulling these out of Utah in protest of the message the state has sent the outdoor industry and community.

By precluding any and all new potential wilderness designations, these agreements are not focused on the best interests of Utah's public lands, residents and economy.

The ramifications of this settlement reach far beyond the borders of Utah Gov. Leavitt -- and other policy-makers across the country -- who need to recognize that reducing protections on wild lands in Utah and elsewhere jeopardizes the health of recreation destinations, the outdoor recreation industry and the economies that depend on them.

The negative potential economic consequences of these actions are far greater than the governor understands.
Peter Metcalf 's company relocated to Salt Lake City from Ventura, Calif., in 1991.


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