Are Gear Makers Good Lobbyists?


Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.

We all live downstream. Photo: Flickr/Kevin Krejci

Next week, tens of thousands of manufacturers, retailers, media and marketers of outdoor gear will convene in Salt Lake City for the Outdoor Retailer (OR) Summer Market. Among them will be many individuals to whom hawking gear designed for outdoor recreation is part and parcel of a larger mission to protect the wild places and natural playground in which those toys are used.

But as Greg Hanscom makes clear in the cover story of the current issue of High Country News, the influence that lobbying groups linked to the outdoor industry enjoyed during the early years of the Obama Administration is waning. Fast.

The story (available in full here, for HCN subscribers) revolves around Peter Metcalf, the CEO of Salt Lake City-based Black Diamond Equipment and a firebrand who in the early 2000s successfully rallied the outdoor industry around the fight to preserve public lands. Metcalf and collaborators in the Outdoor Industry Association found that the outdoor industry held some sway. When former Utah Governor Michael Leavitt wanted to sacrifice public lands for development, they threatened to pull OR, and the many millions of dollars it brings with it, out of Salt Lake City. Leavitt not only backed off, he assembled a panel of outdoor industry types to advise him on land-use policies.

More victories followed, including the 2009 passage of public lands legislation that protects millions of acres of wilderness. Since then, however, progress has slowed and the OIA and the Conservation Alliance have had to fight harder for influence in Washington, D.C. The 2010 election “swept anti-government, anti-conservation Tea Party Republicans into power in the U.S. House of Representatives,” wrote Hanscom in High Country News.

So what is the industry doing to regain Congressional attention?

Well, over at Adventure Journal, you'll find this story about how a group called Montana Hunters and Anglers Action is pushing hard against House Bill 1505, legislation that would give the Department of Homeland Security the authority to supersede environmental protections on federal lands within 100 miles of our southern and norther borders.

The point of the story (which originally appeared in HCN) is that sportsmen are getting organized and opposing policies that would limit their public lands access. Hunters and anglers also represent a mix of Democrats and Republicans. So even though a recent spending survey from the OIA put hunting at the bottom of the top 10 economic drivers from outdoor recreation—we spend $23 billion each year on hunting, compared to $143 billion on camping, according to the report—the relatively wide swath of Americans who hunt and vote might be worth OIA lobbyists' attention.

That will be especially true if Democrats lose the White House later this year.

We hear a lot about the environmental leadership of outspoken companies and individuals in the outdoor industry. But if, as the recent Western Governor's Association report found, the outdoor recreation industry dwarfs both pharmaceuticals and motor vehicles/parts in terms of yearly national sales and services, I would expect the industry to have more sway in D.C.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor