Utah’s support of the Trump administration’s proposal to slash the size of Bears Ears National Monument prompted the Outdoor Retailer show to take its business to Denver. Bears Ears, which received monument status under the Obama administration, is representative of a larger issue that is causing industry anxiety.
“The Trump administration calling for taking national monument status away or to reduce the acreage that’s protected essentially opens up portions to potentially extractive activities — oil and gas mining, things like that,” said Casey Sheahan, president of Keen. “We need to protect these areas, not go backwards. It’s a disservice to our customer base and needs to be challenged.”
Patagonia president and CEO Rose Marcario lambasted President Donald Trump’s national monuments executive order in an April blog post, stating: “Trump and his team prefer to cater to fossil fuel interests and state land grabs for unsustainable development rather than preserve a vital part of our nation’s heritage for future generations by protecting federal lands owned by every citizen.” REI encouraged its customers to contact Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about the importance of protecting public lands. Chaco launched a collection in May with 100 percent of its proceeds going to a pair of non-profit organizations dedicated to protecting Bears Ears.
Other outdoor firms are also determined to strengthen their pro-environment missions. Executives said the impact of Trump’s reducing the size of national monuments — not to mention pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord — isn’t just an environmental issue; it’s also financial. “If our customers don’t have access to land to hike on or water to paddle a boat on, the activities we’re building products for will cease to exist,” explained Peter Sachs, GM of Lowa. “The environment is a very important part of our message and is central to the mission of every company in the industry.”
And with sales slipping, the industry can’t afford another roadblock. According to data provided by The NPD Group Inc./Retail Tracking Service, the overall U.S. outdoor shoe market hit $3.2 billion for the 12-month period ended May 2017, which was down 5 percent from the year prior. And in the specialty retail channel alone, the dip hit 6 percent for the same period, with sales falling to $295.4 million.
Insiders argue that the way to repair the industry is to continue to protect the lands its consumers enjoy. They also believe the benefits of maintaining a healthy public land system are synonymous with the Trump administration’s stated values: improving the country’s financial status and keeping Americans employed.
“Protecting the environment and public lands is core to our industry,” said Amy Roberts, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association. “If policymakers choose to do that, the outcome is going to be a stronger economy in our area. And investing in infrastructure is investing in jobs.”
The entire sector, according to the OIA, generates $887 billion in revenue annually and is responsible for 7.6 million jobs. “It’s a gigantic industry when you include the restaurants, guide services, rafting companies — whoever is providing this experience to people to go outdoors,”Sheahan said. “I don’t think in the past we’ve been as effective in telling our story and our importance to the overall economy.”
To have their voices heard, effective lobbying needs to be employed, according to insiders. “Federal government manages the vast majority of the public lands in the country, so we have to be in there with our voice,” Roberts said, noting that the OIA has staffers in Washington, D.C., and at home in Boulder, Colo., to work on behalf of the industry’s interests.
But some experts believe that competing with more powerful lobbying groups will be a challenge. “Outdoor is not really visible to a lot of people,” said Matt Powell, VP and sports industry analyst with The NPD Group. “It’s harder for the outdoor industry than a much bigger [sector] like oil. But they can still play a role.”
While companies grapple with defining their position on the political stage, they are also looking to have more effective relationships with consumers.
Sue Rechner, president of Merrell, believes engagement requires a delicate touch and respect for everyone’s views. “Not all consumers are of like mind,” Rechner said. “We have to strike a good balance of protecting what we feel and responsibly participating in the conversation.”
Sachs and Lowa understand how consumer voices — particularly in the social media sphere — can impact business. “President [Barack] Obama went out to Alaska in 2015 and was wearing a pair of Lowas. We put a picture of it on our Facebook site,” Sachs said. “We got notes from people saying, ‘I’m never buying Lowas again because Obama wears them.’ But so many more people came to us and said it was cool that he wears Lowa and that he’s trying to protect more land to go hike, climb and ski in.”
Others in the industry believe that young consumers — a big commercial demographic — not only want outdoor players to take a position, they expect it. “One thing that’s clear with millennials and Gen Z is, they want their brands to be transparent about their values and take public stands,” Powell said. “The days of staying on the sidelines are over.”
And despite Trump’s actions, outdoor experts said environmental protection isn’t a single-party issue. “Forgetting about what political party the current administration is comprised of, this is a bipartisan issue,” Rechner said. “This is something the entire country should mobilize behind. National parks are created for everybody to enjoy.”
Roberts said the OIA has already begun to work with Democrats and Republicans who have similar outdoor-related interests. “Recreation does have bipartisan support on the Hill,” Roberts said. “This year we started outdoor recreation caucuses, chaired by Democrats and Republicans, both in the House [of Representatives] and Senate. [The OIA is] concerned with some of the initial [Trump] proposals, but I think we’ve got strong arguments on our side that we’re going to be able to make.”