River Rafting What is at Stake

By Lauren Wood: 3rd Generation river-runner with Holiday River Expeditions

Photo Credit: SBG Media

As I shovel endless fluffy snow, that will soon turn into spring run-off, I know It’s that time of year again: the Outdoor Retailers convention is back in town, in the heart of Salt Lake City. This show takes a full week with thousands working long days to construct the elaborate and enormous booths that each of the world’s largest outdoor companies puts together for the three day convention. It’s a little metropolis inside of a huge building, like a dense little city, except every storefront is Osprey, Petzl, Camelback, Patagonia, and Black Diamond; a gear-junkies dream.

The convention has been located in Utah for over two decades and has grown to take over the entire Salt Palace Convention Center and many adjacent structures and parking lots; a temporary city within a city. But there may be some open real estate next year.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“It’s time for Outdoor Retailer to leave the state in disgust.” Those are the words of Black Diamond CEO and founder, Peter Metcalf, who helped move the company to Salt Lake City twenty-five years ago. In an Op-Ed for the Salt Lake Tribune, Metcalf pulls no punches, writing, “Tragically, Utah’s governor, congressional delegation and state Legislature leadership fail to understand this critical relationship between our healthy public lands and the vitality of Utah’s growing economy.” This public outcry led to Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard adding himself to the chorus line who chimed in recently to say “enough is enough. If Gov. Herbert doesn’t need us, we can find a more welcoming home.”

It’s true, recent legislation in from Utah senators has attempted to put federal lands in control of the state government in order to advance “economic opportunities”; coded language for oil and gas development. The cornerstone of these extremist bills was the Public Lands Initiative put forth by Rep. Rob Bishop, which the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance called, “the worst piece of wilderness legislation that’s been introduced in Congress since passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act.” While Utah’s ‘Mighty Five’ national parks and its collection of national monuments and recreation areas help to protect some of the state’s most beautiful land from further development, even those spaces are under attack by Utah legislators, who would like to weaken the antiquities act and challenge the recently designated Bear’s Ears National Monument, bordering the San Juan River. In light of such moves, anxiety on the outdoor industry’s part is valid.

We at Holiday River Expeditions, and the outdoor industry in general, rely on Utah being a beautiful, accessible place. Oil derricks aren’t pretty or healthy, and the closing of back roads that are now on ‘private’ land is a major turnoff to backpackers, climbers, river runners and bikers alike. Our guides and employees here at Holiday understand that as much as anyone. As an outfitter that depends on these landscapes to offer desert adventurers a world class backcountry experience, our 3rd generation family-run company lives and dies on what we collectively choose to do with our public lands. As the state of Utah recently showed in a State Institutional Trust Lands Administration sale in Oct 2016, the Beehive state’s priorities are to privatize The Commons.  This indicator of things to come is a chilling threat to our way of life, and with the increasing and serious impacts of climate change, on our children’s lives as well.

The outdoor industry brings more than $12 billion dollars of revenue and 120,000 jobs to Utah (that’s three times the amount of jobs created by the fossil fuel companies). There are also the indirect revenue streams: people will move to the new ‘silicon slopes’ in Utah Valley because they love the recreational opportunities here. To those out of state kids, the University of Utah seems less ‘obscure’’ and more ‘adventure’ when they read about our famous red rock and the raging whitewater rivers that cut through it. That is the model of an economy that could sustain our state for generations. Instead Utah could indeed become infamous for being the first state to reverse a national monument.

It would be hard to lose the Outdoor Retailers show, but it would be a much greater tragedy to lose more of these public lands to interests that would see it monetized and torn up. I hear Governor Herbert’s lamentations about the loss of jobs in rural communities, about how they are the real victims of the outdoor industry’s crusade for environmental protections. But it’s hard to take these statements seriously when the job numbers simply don’t add up as well as his campaign donations from the coal and oil industry do.

But, to be honest, it feels disingenuous to talk about this land that is so close to my heart as an ‘economic asset.’ There’s simply too much at stake to reduce our grievances to economics, to conventions and even to specific legislation. We are talking about some of the most beautiful, unique and iconic scenery in the world. We are talking about entire ecosystems that breath life into an otherwise harsh desolate environment. The Colorado River system beating life-blood through this plateaus muddy veins. To protect what we love, we have to be led by our love-muscle, by the heart. If Metcalf and Chouinard  can make a difference with their threat to move the convention, that’s great. But regardless it will take all of our collective might to keep this land free and clean, wild and scenic.

I have been a river runner my entire life.  It was learning from the Holiday boatwomen and men of the 1990′s that led me to find my own oars. I have been a guide for Holiday River Expeditions since 2009. In my spare time I work as the Green Riverkeeper Affiliate with Living Rivers, organizing communities to protect the rivers and lands I love.  I find that the lessons from the river inform my climate justice work and truly all aspects of my life.

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