COLUMN: Climbing gear brands pull out of major retail show

Squamish climbers keep an eye on efforts to protect valuable land for First Nations in Utah

The Outdoor Retail Show in Salt Lake City, Utah is a twice yearly industry convention where brands go to flaunt their wares, climbers go to attract sponsorships or if already sponsored, they talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk of their watchful attending brands. 

It’s the outdoor industry’s two largest trade shows, where new products and technologies are unveiled and brands work hard to get friendly with the outdoor recreating public via their vetted and media armed athletes. 

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It’s a show I’ve heard many stories about – of young climbers driving down with photos and film clips of recent hard sends to entice new sponsors, of debauchery and parties and big business dealings that underpin the show. Even if its climbing shoes and carabiners, they’re still corporations at heart and they are in the business of selling their brand of recreating to us most convincingly.  

This year’s winter show, which took place in January, echoed the upheaval seen throughout the U.S. since the recent election, as several major U.S. and Canadian brands pulled up their tent pegs and left the show. 

Why did brands such as Patagonia, Arc’teryx, Kuhl and Polartec publicly bow out from this year’s trade show? The central theme was a careful choice by big outdoor business to use its economic power to make a blow at Utah’s public land use policy. 

A little backstory is former president Barak Obama’s December 2016 commitment to creating the Bears Ears National Monument in the Utah wilderness. This land, approximately the size of Delaware at 1.35 million acres, holds sacred sites to many First Nations throughout Utah and is vital to their survival, where even running water is a challenge. The Bears Ears creation was a bold stroke by an outgoing president. Most of Utah’s public land is federally owned, but their elected Republican officials push for federal lands to be sold to the state itself so they can then sell the land for mining, drilling and resource extraction. Recently a resolution was passed and saw affirmation by President Donald Trump to rescind the Bears Ears Monument designation, with heavy support from Utah’s elected officials. 

First came Patagonia, outdoor retail giant. In a statement in early February their CEO, Rose Marcario, made it clear that Patagonia would not be participating in the show because of Utah state senator Gary Herbert’s support for the resolution advising Trump to rescind national monument status from Bears Ears, only months after it was created. Marciano states on Patagonia’s website: 

“Because of the hostile environment they have created and their blatant disregard for Bears Ears National Monument and other public lands, the backbone of our business, Patagonia will no longer attend the Outdoor Retailer show in Utah and we are confident other outdoor manufacturers and retailers will join us in moving our investment to a state that values our industry and promotes public lands conservation.” 

Patagonia stated $12 billion in consumer spending and 122,000 jobs as two economic impacts of outdoor recreation in the state, something Utah’s elected officials obviously do not value. 

Over the past week several other brands have publicly withdrawn from the winter OR trade show. Canadian giant Arc’teryx was the second major brand who pulled out of OR, stating on their website: “The company stands in support of Patagonia’s move to leave Outdoor Retailer in Utah and is following suit. Funds that would have been spent to attend Outdoor Retailer in 2017 will be reallocated to the Conservation Alliance’s new Public Lands Defense Fund.” 

Peak Designs and Polartec have also pulled out of OR as of this week. Earlier in January, Peter Metcalf, founder and CEO of Salt Lake City based Black Diamond Equipment, urged the Outdoor Retail Show to leave Utah because of the state’s public land conservation policies. 

In his Op Ed piece in the Salt Lake Tribune in early January Metcalf bluntly says, “Over the past several months Utah’s political leadership has unleashed an all-out assault against Utah’s protected public lands and Utah’s newest monument. It’s time for Outdoor Retailer to leave the state in disgust.”

The North Face chose a more careful line. The outdoor mega-giant chose to stay at the winter OR show and plans to attend the summer show because they felt they could be more effective in supporting the industry as a whole, helping find a new location for OR and standing up for public land conservation by coming to the OR Show table and letting Utah officials know their stances. North Face president Scott Baxter wrote in a letter to the outdoor industry this week saying, 

“We agree that OR should leave Utah, but we’re going to help the OIA and Outdoor Retailer search for a new, better location. In the meantime, we’re going to let Utah know how we feel. We are working on this right now and when we arrive in July, we will not leave without making our values and concerns heard – that public lands need to remain public.” 

Will ideals trump business in this economic show of force, with environmentally minded corporations forcing official’s hands, or will it simply boil down to who will give the OR Show a better deal on a new locale? 

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