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Largest outdoor gear show abandons Salt Lake City after 20 years to protest Utah Republicans’ conservation stance

People attend the Outdoor Retailer show at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City in January. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

The twice-a-year Outdoor Retailer show is the world’s largest trade exhibition for one of the world’s fastest-growing industries. It’s where companies such as Patagonia, the North Face, REI, Black Diamond and Polartec hawk their coolest winter and summer sports gear to retailers across the globe. It attracts some 50,000 visitors and an estimated $45 million a year to Salt Lake City, where it has been a fixture at the city’s Salt Palace Convention Center for two decades.

For months now, however, some of the manufacturers that exhibit at the show have been threatening to take it elsewhere in protest of efforts by Utah Republicans, including the governor and leaders of the state’s congressional delegation, to end federal control over millions of acres of public lands in the state, and to overturn President Barack Obama’s designation of some 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah sacred to Native American tribes as the Bears Ears National monument.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch and several other key Utah congressional Republicans, including House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, have argued for months that Obama should not have invoked his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect the site, as The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reported recently, with Hatch claiming support from President Trump for undoing Obama’s decision.

Will Obama's designated monuments continue to stand? (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

Thursday, after negotiations with Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) proved fruitless, the primary sponsor of the show announced that it would be moved out of Utah.

“It is clear that the governor indeed has a different perspective on the protections of public lands from that of our members and the majority of Western state voters, both Republicans and Democrats — that’s bad for our American heritage, and it’s bad for our businesses,” said a statement by the Outdoor Industry Association. “We are therefore continuing our search for a new home as soon as possible.”

Despite Utah’s robust outdoor recreation opportunities, elected officials, in Utah from Governor Herbert and the state legislature to its congressional delegation, most notably Representative [Rob] Bishop, the Chairman of the House Resources Committee, have all actively embraced the idea of transferring America’s public lands to the state. A move, that in many states, has already resulted in the outright sale or restricted access to the very public lands that have provided hunting, angling, hiking, skiing, and camping to generations of people seeking to skirt the urban hustle for the outdoors — a uniquely American experience.
It’s a move that has been widely rejected by voters of all stripes. Public lands have defined America and serve as the backbone of the outdoor recreation economy. For the hundreds of outdoor merchandisers, retailers, guides, outfitters and other recreation service providers, the transfer or sale of America’s public lands is the loss of the very infrastructure that supports our industry.

“We really can’t stand by” Utah’s efforts, Rose Marcario, Patagonia’s chief executive, told the Associated Press. “As an industry, we’re all about defending public lands.”

Emerald Expositions, which owns the show, said in a news release that it would not include Utah in the bidding for future Outdoor Retailer show locations. “Salt Lake City has been hospitable to Outdoor Retailer and our industry for the past 20 years,” Marisa Nicholson, show director for Outdoor Retailer, said in a statement, “but we are in lockstep with the outdoor community and are working on finding a new home.”

The dispute is another chapter in a long-running battle between environmentalists and conservatives in Utah and elsewhere in the West over the vast swath of the country west of the Rocky Mountains owned by the U.S. government. The fight heated up dramatically under the Obama administration, which used its executive authority to declare more than 500 million acres as national monuments under the Antiquities Act. The act was signed into law by Teddy Roosevelt to give presidents the power to protect special natural, cultural and historic areas through the creation of national monuments like Bears Ears.

Environmental groups have praised the conservation efforts, but as The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis wrote in December, critics regard them as federal land grabs. Some worry that the new designations could fuel another armed protest by antigovernment forces inspired by the Cliven Bundy family, such as the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon last year.

Reacting to the pullout, Paul Edwards, a spokesman for the governor, told the Salt Lake Tribune that the decision “reflects a gross ingratitude. … It perpetuates the false narrative that Utah — a state that derives much of its inspiration and identity from its iconic public lands … is somehow hostile to those public lands. It shows how a political agenda rather than reason or merit seems to have captured the decision-making at the Outdoor Industry Association.”

It also is yet another example of corporate America using its clout to achieve political results, as scores of companies have done in battling Trump’s immigration ban executive order and, before that, the efforts of Republican-controlled state houses in North Carolina and Indiana to resist civil rights protections for the LGBT community.

While the 2017 show will still be held in Utah, after that it will move elsewhere.

Anticipating this possibility, states were already lining up to host the event. Colorado’s Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has been offering up Colorado from the sidelines for some time. While disclaiming any poaching on Utah, he told the Denver Post before Thursdays decision, “we are always going to make the argument ‘Here’s why Colorado is better.’”

Peter Metcalf, founder of Black Diamond outdoor gear, agreed. “Utah is the birther state of the most anti-stewardship, anti-public-lands policy in the country and, conversely, I would say Colorado ranks very highly as the opposite,” Metcalf told the Denver paper. “If we can’t affect policy by staying, then the next step is leaving.”

Conservation Colorado took out ads in the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News this week, the Tribune reported, touting Colorado’s bid. “We have stronger beer,” it said. “We have taller peaks. We have higher recreation. But most of all we love our public lands.”