Those who are one with nature aren’t necessarily one with each other.
“Talk to the mountain bikers, and they’ll tell you that horses tear up their trails,” says Corey Biggers, the leader of the Montana Mountain Bikers Alliance. “Talk to the backcountry riders, and they’ll tell you that bikes scare their horses. If you listen to all the rumors and the bravado, you’ll think everyone is bad. The biggest threat to outdoor recreation is user groups not getting along.”
Or at least it was. Today, the threat is much more existential than mere infighting. Namely, the Trump administration has proposed cutting nearly 2 million acres from Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments, possibly for mineral drilling. That’s to say nothing of cutbacks to endangered species protection, environmental rules and possibly raising entry fees for National Parks.
And so, once splintered outdoorsmen have not only unified, they’ve also become politicized. “In the past, there’s been a bit of complacency,” says Louis Geltman, policy director for the Outdoor Alliance, a coalition of outdoor sports groups. “People have maybe paid more attention to their local issues. Now everyone sees what’s happening nationally and is speaking out.”
I met Geltman in January on the sidelines of the Outdoor Retailer trade show, which this year traded athletics for activism. Normally a chance for clothing designers to hawk new ski-jacket designs or retailers to bulk-purchase hiking poles, this year’s show mixed its flannel and craft beer spirit with a decidedly political mood. Case in point: After more than 20 years in Salt Lake City, major retailers (led by Patagonia) moved the show to Denver because of Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s support for the Trump administration’s moves to curtail access to public lands.
The defiance didn’t stop there either. Mixed in with panel discussions on avalanche awareness and reducing body odor in sportswear were talks on climate change and American Indian values. At a lunch panel, a pollster from Colorado College’s State of the Rockies group presented polling data on Western voters’ enthusiasm for the outdoors: By a 41-point margin, voters wanted the administration to protect nature rather than use public lands for energy production, a sentiment with majorities in every state and across all political parties. And booths made up with faux campsites offered petitions to stop oil drilling in the Arctic. Patagonia even helped sponsor a light projection protest that beamed messages like “#MonumentsForAll” onto the nearby Bureau of Land Management headquarters and a civic center in downtown Denver.
Land Tawney, president and CEO of the Montana-based group Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, calls the public lands moment an “awakening,” not just for the hunters and fishers in his group (who generally lean more conservative — think Don Jr.), but for the other activists he wouldn’t always associate with. “All the people in this room, we haven’t been galvanized in this way,” he says, gesturing around the show. “Bring all of them together with the hunters, that’s an unstoppable force. We’ll come out of this stronger as a community, and when the pendulum swings back at the national level, we’ll get things that are great for conservation.”
After former Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz announced a bill that would’ve sold off three million acres of public land, Tawney’s group started posting #KeepItPublic all over Chaffetz’s social media accounts. As more outdoorsmen picked up the hashtag, the congressman yanked the bill a week later. “He didn’t know this giant had been awoken,” Tawney explains.
While hobbyists may have clout in numbers — outdoor recreation accounted for 2 percent of the country’s GDP in 2016 (or $373 billion), outpacing industries like agriculture, and oil and mining — it’s the retail stores that have started using their stature to make a statement. Brands like North Face and Black Diamond have always leaned left and preached sustainability, but now, they’re directly speaking out. Similarly, Patagonia sued the Trump administration over the decision as well as put up a message on its website that read, “The President Stole Your Land.” The company’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, even ended up in a public feud with the House Natural Resources Committee, which accused Patagonia of pandering to “wealthy elitist urban dwellers from New York to San Francisco” and inviting him to testify before Congress.
He declined, saying the committee, “Like many … in this failed Orwellian government, is shackled to special interests of oil, gas and mining and will seek to sell off our public lands at every turn and continue to weaken and denigrate Theodore Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act, which has preserved our treasured public lands for over 100 years.”
“The landscape has definitely changed,” explains Eric Melson, advocacy director for the International Mountain Biking Association. “We’re not just fighting for access, but the legacy of public lands. The way lands are managed, the public voices that shape it, all of these things are changing.”
When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made an initial list of monuments under review for possible revisions, Melson’s group saw four that bikers had a hand in creating and managing to ensure there would be plentiful trails (some national parks and monuments ban or severely restrict bike access). All four — including Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument and Utah’s Canyons of the Ancients — were left untouched, and Melson believes that the bikers’ 5,000-plus comments helped.
“We’re not another conservation group; we’re not signing letters with the Sierra Club,” he says. “We want our voice to be unique, that’s part of what makes us successful.”
Members of the Outdoor Alliance sent three times as many letters to Congress in 2017 than in 2016, largely in response to the administration’s public lands policies. The group’s website, with resources on engagement and pending legislation, also saw a 24 percent traffic bump in the first year under Trump.
Public lands are an obvious pressure point for outdoorsmen, but where political advocacy goes from here remains to be seen. Climate change has obvious implications for the outdoors — and could effectively wipe out some sports’ seasons — but it’s touchy politically. Or more bluntly: Why alienate conservative allies you might need by seeming like another environmental group that those who lean right are dubious of?
For now, though, Tawney says one element has been realized: The community’s passion, which he compared to another robust political group. “You fall in love with the land, you want to defend it,” he explains. “I call it the second Second Amendment. It gets that much of a visceral response if you try to take it away.”