Bears Ears National Monument

Photo: Adriel Heisey

The new activists

It’s been called the largest elimination of protected land in American history. But the fight is not over yet. The reduction of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah has turned major American outdoor brands into full-blown activists.

In south-eastern Utah, the two large sandstone mesas called the Bears Ears is a well-known landmark – and has been so for ages. They are incorporated into Native American cultural legends and histories. Several southwestern tribes, like the Navajo and Hopi, trace their ancestry to the ancient peoples who populated this rugged, dry region since time immemorial.

Already in the 1930’s, attempts were made to include Bears Ears in a new National Monument. Yet it wasn’t until the end of 2016, when President Obama’s decided to establish a new National Monument here, that this unique area was protected. The decision was a victory for many Native Americans, but also for outdoor enthusiasts in the US. Several first-rate rock climbing sites are found here, as well as myriads of running and mountain bike trails.

But the victory was short-lived. Shortly after the Trump administration took office in 2017, it declared its intention to reduce public lands across the country, opening them up to fossil fuel companies, mining and other commercial activities. Pouncing on the opportunity, a Utah congressional delegation requested that President Trump roll back protections for the newly designated Bears Ears Monument.

This led to what has been called a tipping point for the American outdoor industry; an industry that is perhaps unrivaled in its dependence on the conservation of wild spaces.

A farewell to Salt Lake City

As outfitter to adventurers and explorers of such wildernesses, the outdoor industry is uniquely positioned to raise awareness of conservation issues. Certainly, several brands and industry organizations had acted as conservation advocates for many years, but without broadcasting their standpoints in any significant manner outside the outdoor community. This was all about to change.

In spring 2017, a handful of outdoor companies took initiative and pleaded with Utah’s governor to reconsider, but he was resolute. The outdoors industry hadn’t made much of a fuss before, so he would have been prudent to bet that they would all quickly forget about the whole ordeal and get back to making gloves and such.

Not this time. Concealed beneath the recycled polyester glove was an iron fist that Patagonia, Arc’teryx, The North Face, Polartec and REI were first to brandish, following through with their threat to boycott the semi-annual Outdoor Retailer trade show, Utah’s largest and worth roughly $45 million to the local economy. Many other brands large and small quickly followed suit, and Outdoor Retailer announced it would be saying farewell to Salt Lake City, its home for the last 21 years, to relocate to Denver, Colorado in 2018.

Meanwhile in Washington, Bears Ears’ fate was already being determined by the bureaucrats. Following an executive order by Trump, a department tasked to review 26 national monuments recommended that the Bears Ears monument be downsized by 85 % – from 1.5 million acres to a mere 228,784 acres.

PHOTO: Josh Ewing

Ancient dwellings frame the twin-formation that gives the monument its namesake, the Bears Ears. Photo: Josh Ewing

Brands raising their voice

Television and radio ads, website and social media awareness campaigns, petitions, lobbying and now threats of legal action – the combined effort begins to resemble a full-blown Greenpeace campaign. Yet the people leading the charge are not hardened activists: they’re the people behind your favorite backpack. The outdoors industry is unquestionably in a united uproar without precedent. But why here, and why now?

Bears Ears initially represented a somewhat unique situation, whereby the brands leading the charge could hold the Outdoor Retailer trade show as a bargaining chip when negotiating with politicians. This kind of leverage is indeed rare. Insofar as Patagonia’s role is concerned, Corley Kenna, Senior Director of Patagonia’s Global Communications and Public Relations, points out:

“Patagonia has long taken a leadership role in conservation advocacy, and our particular involvement in Bears Ears today stems from the fact that we were also an integral part of the successful lobbying effort that had the monument declared in the first place. And now, less than a year has passed since the victory and it already faces annihilation.”

On December 4th, President Trump signed a proclamation in favor of the department’s recommendation to reduce the Bears Ears National Monument by 85%.

Bears Ears National Monument

Bears Ears National Monument Map before elimination. Map: bearsearscoalition.org

A trend that unites or divides?

Efforts to clean up supply chains, close manufacturing loops and reduce carbon footprints all had to start somewhere, yet today they have become ubiquitous. When asked if brands going it alone as conservation activists will be the next trend, Kenna feels that “it’s too soon to tell.” But here, Kenna is quick to point out that Patagonia is hardly “going it alone.”

“We are part of a broad coalition of brands, conservation organizations and tribal bands fighting alongside one another.”

Kenna sees the Bears Ears as the “tip of the spear” in the fight to protect public lands in the US. “Whether this movement will export to other countries is hard to say, but the engagement of foreign brands in the Bears Ears battle is certainly encouraging.”

Naturally, major brands must consider the financial implications of their actions. In a response to the decision by President Trump, the largest retailer chain in the States, REI, wrote:

“Americans enjoy our public lands in every part of the country, irrespective of politics. Not only have hikers, cyclists, climbers and hunters enjoyed national monuments, but economies have been built around them through outfitters, guides and retailers. The $887 billion outdoor recreation economy employs over 7.6 million people in good, sustainable jobs.”

While many of the comments to this statement on REI’s website were enthusiastic, far from everybody appreciated REI’s position:

“I’m so tired of big corporations trying to force a dishonest political ideology on us; hence why I’m no longer a customer of yours,” is just one of many critical posts.

When CSR begins to look the same from one company to the next, going the extra mile remains the best bet of standing out from the crowd. And while it’s certainly not risk-free, companies that effectively communicate their environmental leadership have much to gain. In an era where identity branding meets environmental crises, many of the most sustainable brands are used by eco-conscious consumers to identify themselves to their tribes. If brands already serve as the banners around which we rally and have raised the call to arms, can we – and should we – then expect them to lead the charge into battle? Facing a turning point where our elected officials and traditional institutions seem to be gagged and bound or downright adversarial when it comes to environmental protection, people are sure to begin looking for leadership elsewhere.

Jonathan Fraenkel-Eidse
jonathan.eidse@norragency.com