The iconic brand has long been the conscience of the outdoor industry, forsaking hefty profits to do the right thing. Now the company is going to war against the Trump administration over protections for public land in a bid to become a serious political player—which happens to be very good for sales.
On February 16 of this year, the outdoor industry transformed. This wasn’t due to a first ascent, a remarkable new piece of gear, or some surprise merger of iconic companies. Rather, what happened that morning was the most mundane of modern American rituals: a conference call. Around 15 minutes into the conversation, a 52-year-old businesswoman from Staten Island, New York, declared war on the ruling party of the United States of America.
The stakes for the conference call may have been high, but expectations were not. Salt Lake City had hosted the industry’s semiannual trade show, Outdoor Retailer, since the mid-1990s, with the event drawing some $45 million to the state each year. That kind of money can buy influence, but within Washington’s halls of power, the outdoor industry had long been seen as a self-licking ice cream cone: easily pleased with itself and unable to withstand even mild heat.
“They don’t like conflict,” one Capitol Hill insider told me in early February. “I don’t think they have the gumption for the fight.” That harsh assessment was widely shared. In the weeks leading up to the call, Peter Metcalf, the founder of Black Diamond, worked behind the scenes to push the OIA to get serious, writing an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune suggesting that the group pull its show out of Utah “in disgust” if the state didn’t end its “all-out assault … on America’s best idea.” But it wasn’t the first time that Metcalf had proposed secession. “I think we get a similar letter from Peter every six months,” Utah’s lieutenant governor told a public-radio reporter afterward—a rhetorical pat on the head.
Things took a hard turn when Yvon Chouinard, the 78-year-old iconoclast and founder of Patagonia, announced that his company would boycott future shows if Utah didn’t change its stance on Bears Ears. Arc’teryx and Polartec soon followed. On the call with Governor Herbert, the industry was led by Amy Roberts, the executive director of the OIA, who soon turned the floor over to Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario—the woman from Staten Island. The industry leaders were demanding that the governor publicly reject his congressional delegation’s calls to gut the Bears Ears protections, and Marcario calmly explained the seriousness of their conviction. “Just on this call right now, the CEOs represent a little more than $5 billion in revenue,” she said, “and it’s rare we come together galvanized in this way. This is not a political issue or a ploy or anything like that. It’s a moral issue for us.” Scott Baxter, the president of the North Face, echoed Marcario, as did Jerry Stritzke of REI. After some 40 minutes, Herbert refused to meet the demand. The industry leaders thanked him, signed off, and started looking for a new home for their $45 million prize.