The all-together concept aids outdoor explorers on the micro level, but it appears to also be emerging on a macro level, with the outdoor recreation industry asserting newfound power as an economic, political and cultural force.
It helps that outdoor recreation — including hiking, camping, hunting, boating and climbing — has considerable industrial clout, accounting for $427.2 billion, or 2.2 percent, of U.S. gross domestic product in 2017.
Working cooperatively would be quite a change for a customarily fractured tribe of outdoor lovers. The throttle twisters never joined the hikers who never liked the cyclists. The hunters and anglers spoke different languages. The skiers hazed the snowboarders. The mountain of historical disagreements went unclimbed.
The strength of the outdoor-recreation community’s banding together was on recent display when it staged an insurrection against the Utah-based online retailing behemoth Backcountry.com. Reporting in my publication, the Colorado Sun, described how the company was targeting outdoor-recreation small-business owners who had registered the name “backcountry” for their products and services.
As news spread of Backcountry.com’s two-year campaign — including firing off cease-and-desist letters, contesting existing trademarks and even filing federal lawsuits — thousands of the company’s customers galvanized in opposition. People who love the backcountry apparently didn’t want someone trying to own the word itself.
It wasn’t trademark enforcement, really. The company, founded by ski bums and now owned by private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners, has registered trademarks for online retail store services. But as Backcountry.com expanded into its own branded apparel and skiing, climbing and mountain-biking equipment, it started pursuing companies with trademarks in those product categories. Backcountry.com’s aggressive trademark attorneys targeted mostly single-owner operators of small businesses. Conspicuously, they ignored backcountry-branded businesses owned by other private-equity investors.
The strong-arm pursuit of desired trademarks is not an uncommon tactic for businesses that are expanding into new categories. (When Apple got into the music business, it wrangled for years with the Beatles’ Apple Corps.) But in the backcountry community, where camaraderie is king and cockiness kills, the company’s maneuvers ignited a social media firestorm. More than 22,000 people quickly joined a Boycott BackcountryDOTcom Facebook page.
The company’s chief executive, Jonathan Nielsen, fired Backcountry.com’s outside attorneys, issued an apology letter (“We made a mistake”) and vowed to undertake a cross-country tour to visit every business the company had harmed in the past two years. That might take a while: For starters, Backcountry.com has nearly 50 legal actions pending against other businesses.
He’s also making amends by doing things such as offering to help distribute and promote Wild Barn Coffee, which had rebranded from Backcountry Nitro after the company threatened the owner with ruin.
The moment when the outdoor-recreation community and the industry itself seemed to realize the power of a unified voice came two years ago, when the twice-yearly Outdoor Retailer trade show decamped from Salt Lake City to protest Utah’s support for the Trump administration’s attempt to undo the Obama administration’s designation of the 2 million-acre Bears Ears region of the state as a national monument.
Trump ended up slashing the area of the Bears Ears monument by 85 percent, but the outdoor trade show’s decision to move out of Utah reflected its confidence that the decision to stick up for outdoor spaces would be supported by some of the industry’s biggest retailers, representing millions of customers.
But the Utah episode is just the highest-profile example of how the outdoor-recreation industry is fueling a political movement focused on protecting public lands, reducing the impact of climate change and widening access for recreation. In March, the largest public lands bill in a decade was signed into law, creating 1.3 million acres of new wilderness and 700,000 acres of new recreation and conservation areas. The Outdoor Business Climate Partnership has united the industry’s top trade groups in a unified lobbying push for a clean-energy economy. In Congress, legislation championed by the outdoor industry — the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act and Recreation Not Red-Tape Act — promises to streamline recreational access and permitting on federal public lands.
With outdoor-recreation fans seeming more likely to stand arm-in-arm — and not just go their separate ways, as they had in the past — politicians appear to be taking notice of how potent a unified outdoor-recreation industry could be. In the past four years, the number of states with offices dedicated to fostering outdoor recreation has grown to 16 from three. At least five more states have offices under consideration. The Backcountry.com episode put plenty of people on notice that the outdoor community can act cohesively and decisively when threatened.