Black Diamond's Peter Metcalf is a leader in the outdoor industry's stand off with Gov. Gary Herbert

The walls at Black Diamond Inc., worldwide manufacturer of high-performance outdoor equipment, are decorated with photographs showcasing Utah’s wild spaces and people enjoying them, usually in an extreme way: ice climbing, backcountry skiing or some specialized sport requiring the finest equipment, a large dose of guts and spectacular landscapes pushing humans to the adventurous edge.

It should come as no surprise that Black Diamond’s founder, Peter Metcalf, a wiry outdoors enthusiast who himself is as spare as an ice ax, has had a hand in instigating a momentous clash between the outdoor recreation industry and Gov. Gary Herbert over Utah’s public land. 

“The leadership of the state—especially this governor, the Legislature and the rural county commissioners—is at the forefront of trying to transform every single acre into some kind of extractive industry use,” says Metcalf, who moved Black Diamond from California to Salt Lake City in 1991, largely because of Utah’s spectacular landscape. “The feds have a process that looks at preserving wilderness. If control goes to the state, it would just accelerate uncontrolled development.”

Every year since 1996, the Outdoor Industry Association, of which Metcalf is an influential member, has brought two trade shows and 40,000 visitors to the Salt Palace Convention Center—by far the city’s largest conventions. Combined, the shows—held every January and August—pump $40 million into the state’s economy. And that is just a small part of the overall economic impact that mountain bikers, climbers, campers, hikers, hunters and fishermen bring to the state when they head into the red-rock desert or aspen-covered mountains in search of adventure. The outdoor recreation industry cycles billions through the economy, providing Utah annually with $300 million in taxes alone. And every year the shows have grown larger, literally bursting out of the city’s convention facilities into a massive tent. Downtown Salt Lake depends on the Outdoor Retailer conventions.

Jordan Wong, owner of J. Wong’s Asian Bistro downtown, says the departure of the outdoor retailers would be staggering to his business. The four-day gatherings in August and January account for a third of the restaurant’s revenues for those months. “That’s a huge impact on a business,” Wong says. “If they leave, it would hurt our business big time.”

It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship for 16 years, but after a meeting last August with the governor and his staff about how the city can meet the convention’s growing needs, OIA President and CEO Frank Hugelmeyer stunned Herbert by going public with his industry’s frustration over Utah’s public lands policy, particularly a move to take control of all federal land in the state.

“Of greatest concern is the governor’s lawsuit challenging the government over jurisdiction of the federal public lands and road claims within national parks, monuments and wilderness areas,” Hugelmeyer told reporters after the meeting. “We will not sit silently on threats to the nation’s recreation infrastructure.”

Headlines around the nation reported the outdoor retailers’ statement as an “ultimatum” to Herbert and the Legislature. Since then, the governor’s aides have flown to the group’s Colorado headquarters ahead of the OIA’s January deadline for Herbert to prove he’ll work to preserve public lands. If he’s unsuccessful, the group has threatened to pull the show from Utah.

Kenji Haroutunian is director of the Outdoor Retailer show and the ultimate decision maker on whether the show will stay in Utah. Nielsen Expositions, the show’s producer, supports the OIA’s statement. “We require open and pristine landscapes, whether they are waterways, shorelines, alpine environments. All of those are recreation resources that fuel tourism and recreational activities,” Haroutunian explains. Utah’s federal land grab, he says, “is a big deal.”

Options for a new site include convention hubs Denver, Las Vegas, Anaheim, Calif., and Orlando—none of which offer the immediate access to the mountains found in Salt Lake City. “The governor doesn’t seem to recognize the recreational economy,” Haroutunian says. “It’s an afterthought, like recreation is what happens only after industrial use.”

Herbert and Utah’s lawmakers agree that the state’s wild spaces are beautiful and inspiring. But they make it clear they will open much more of it to extract trillions of dollars in oil, minerals, timber and real estate. 

One of the most obvious and controversial targets for energy development is the Kaiparowits Plateau that lies within the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, the only federal park or monument on the list for state takeover.

For the last 50 years, energy companies have tried to get at the estimated 63 billion tons of coal that lie under the monument’s beautiful convoluted landscape in south-central Utah. But even a scaled-back plan for a mine in the 1990s was fiercely beaten back by environmentalists. The issue became moot in 1996 when President Bill Clinton established the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument.

Kanab Rep. Mike Noel, a leader in the Legislature’s “Cowboy Caucus,” has made it his career goal to overturn Clinton’s creation and develop those coal reserves.

Environmentalists instead see a sustainable “new” economy in Utah’s wild lands. Metcalf and the retailers point to the many small businesses—guide and river-running services, cafes and resorts—that are spawned by their industry in an economy that doesn’t disrupt local communities the way oil and mining cycles do. But religious-like zeal on both sides threatens to make public lands policy a perpetual political battleground.

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