Metcalf: Future of outdoor industry depends on preservation
Peter Metcalf, the CEO and president of Black Diamond Equipment, is an unapologetic environmental activist who has helped to galvanize the outdoor recreation industry as a political force. And while he is not ready to shed his battle gear when it comes to negotiating with Utah’s congressional delegation over public land policies, he believes his group is making headway.
The crux of the issue, Metcalf says, was best summed up by the outdoor industry pioneer Yvon Chouinard, who famously quipped, "There is not a lot of business to be done on a dead planet."
Roughly translated, Metcalf says, that means the success of Utah’s prized outdoor economy, which includes the ski industry, is inextricably tied to conservation.
"There is no vibrant outdoor industry if we don’t work hard right now to preserve the last unprotected, incredible, iconic landscapes, rivers, canyons and alpine mountain environments in America. If we lose them now they are lost forever because they are under siege."
Metcalf offered his candid assessment of the economic and environmental issues facing the outdoor industry at the Swaner EcoCenter on Wednesday, April 24, as part of the center’s discussion series on sustainability.
The lecture followed closely on the heels of Sally Jewell’s confirmation as U.S. Secretary of the Interior, which Metcalf characterized as a "watershed historical event." Jewell is a former CEO of the nationally known recreation retailer REI and, according to Metcalf, she is a far cry from previous secretaries, many of whom owed their appointments to their ties to the ranching, oil and timber industries.
"She is an incredibly accomplished leader of a $2 billion retailer. She is a climber, a mountaineer and a conservationist who I feel fortunate to call a friend," he said.
Having a voice in Washington, D.C., Metcalf said, is a stunning accomplishment for such a young industry which began to take shape only 25 years ago.
In a galloping rendition of the outdoor industry’s history, Metcalf described the scene in the early 1980s as "a mob, a group of random individuals running around without leadership, without a social contract, without any morals or values."
But outdoor recreation was gaining popularity and small entrepreneurial companies, like Chouinard Equipment, where Metcalf worked, were growing quickly.
That is, until 1988-89, when they were hit by what Metcalf refers to as "the big bang."
Due to changes in tort law, outdoor recreation companies faced new legal and financial challenges. Some, like Chouinard, were forced into bankruptcy.
"It sent shockwaves through the industry," he said.
Increased liability was just one of several issues jabbing at the beleaguered industry. According to Metcalf, access to parks and private land was also under fire.
Ultimately, those threats served to pull the industry together. "It was a shot across the bow," said Metcalf. In response, recreation-related businesses banded together in 1989 to form the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America, the precursor to the Outdoor Industry Association. A few years later, in 1996, the association hosted its first trade show, Outdoor Retailer, an event that has since become an economic staple in Salt Lake City.
Another turning point, according to Metcalf, came when the outdoor industry began to use its economic clout as a political tool.
Originally, in keeping with its customers’ environmental concerns, the association had aligned itself with the conservation movement. However, Metcalf said, as long as the industry just spoke about conservation, it was "marginalized."
But with Outdoor Retailer’s twice-yearly trade shows firmly established, the association tried a different tack.
With a cascade of new data highlighting the growing impact of the recreation economy in Utah and around the country, the association decided to reframe the debate.
"We decided it is not about being aligned with conservation, it is about money; it is not about jobs versus the snail darter, it is about jobs versus jobs."
That is when Metcalf picked up his megaphone.
In 2004, then Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and the federal government were locked in a battle over the status of a multitude of land parcels being considered for wilderness protection. The state had filed lawsuits contesting the amount of potential wilderness acreage and demanding, in part, the right to maintain roads on those parcels to provide access to resource development. In response, the Outdoor Industry Association threatened to move the Outdoor Retailer trade shows out of Utah.
After heated negotiations, Leavitt softened his position, agreeing not to pursue road access through national parks, monuments and compromising on some of the most critical wilderness study areas.
"We suddenly found our voice. It was a catalytic event for the outdoor industry … the tradeshow was an incredibly valuable collateral asset in this," Metcalf said.
Today, according to Metcalf, Utah’s outdoor industry has a $5.8 billion impact on the economy. It provides about 70,000 jobs and generates $300 million in tax revenues.
Studies, he said, have also shown that public lands, when offered environmental protection, have the potential to generate more revenue through tourism, jobs and increased property values. "Those tools have been a critical element in being able to lobby for public policy decisions," he said.
However, to the small audience in Park City last week, Metcalf admitted the industry is still evolving. While trying to invite more groups into the tent, he worries the group will "dilute the issues it goes after" in the interest of having a broader appeal.
"Candidly, that is an internal debate within the organization now among many of the founding companies that are very committed to being a champion for our core constituents, versus pandering to a broader group of constituents who don’t want to see such an activist or militant position."
Overall, though, Metcalf said he is proud to be part of an industry that has gone from being completely disorganized to having a voice in Washington, D.C.
He added, "Even through we are in disagreement with many of our elected officials, at this point in time we feel being here, going toe-to-toe and leaning forward on those people will have the greatest positive impact on the state for the long term."
Metcalf is keeping a close eye on Congressional delegation
Peter Metcalf, the CEO and president of Black Diamond Equipment, says the future of SkiLink depends on whether Congress listens to the public or to big money.
During the Q&A after a lecture at the Swaner EcoCenter in Park City on April 24, Metcalf, a longtime board member and former vice chairman of the Outdoor Industry Association, did not mince words.
"There is no question in my mind, it is a fact; the industry is totally against it," he said.
Citing reports from the SnowSport Industries America, Metcalf said, "The only category of skiing that grew this last year was off-piste backcountry skiing. You look at any of the numbers — of gear being sold, of lift tickets being sold, it is all about off-piste skiing."
Off-piste is a term that originated in Europe to describe ungroomed terrain and now is widely used to refer to skiing outside of developed resorts.
According to Metcalf, Utah is known for its untrammeled backcountry. Bisecting that terrain with a mechanical lift doesn’t make sense.
"It is just a bad project because it is not where skiing is going today," he said.
"Utah’s signature product is world-class, easily accessible ski areas, juxtaposed against world-class, alpine wilderness backcountry. That accessibility is why so many people come to this state to ski and to recreate in the winter," he said.
That reputation for off-piste access draws visitors from as far away as Europe and Asia, said Metcalf.
"They stay at hotels, they ski for a couple days at our world-class ski areas and then they want to go in the backcountry that was featured in the latest Warren Miller film," he said.
Installing the SkiLink gondola in the backcountry will diminish that appeal, he said.
"If we really want to advance Utah’s recreational economy and ski industry, we need to fight for this signature product. That is the message the ski industry is trying to give to our elected officials," he said.
With at least one notable exception.
SkiLink was proposed in 2011 by Talisker Corporation, the Canadian parent company of Canyons. According to the SkiLink website, "The gondola would be the first of its kind in the United States and give Utah a competitive advantage." linking Solitude and Canyons, the site adds, skiers and snowboarders would have access to more than 6,000 acres of terrain. The project’s proponents also say the project would boost tourism and add jobs to the economy.
However, Talisker must first convince Congress to sell the company a 30-acre, 150-foot-wide strip of U.S. Forest Service land enabling a route that would link the upper reaches of Canyons ski area in Summit County to Solitude Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon. To accomplish that, four of Utah’s five congressmen authored a bill, the Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act. The legislation stalled over the winter but according to Metcalf may soon be reintroduced.
If the sale gets the nod from Congress, SkiLink will be subjected to local approval processes in Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and Summit County.
At that point, Metcalf is confident, it will be met by an avalanche of public protest on the local level.
"The public is absolutely opposed to this," said Metcalf, adding he met with U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) who, he said, assured him the bill was not going to move forward.
"They were shocked at the response that they got," Metcalf said, referring to negative feedback they received from constituents.
But that may no longer be true.
Two weeks ago, Metcalf heard the bill would be reintroduced with the Utah delegation’s support. "The only thing you can conclude is that they don’t care what the public wants," he said.
Ultimately, Metcalf believes SkiLink will be defeated. "I am an optimist at heart. I believe that we are going to stop it. But I am concerned about the money. At some point you just wonder if democracy can be bought."
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