Salt Lake gets Outdoor Retailer back but not everyone is happy

“Until we hear a firm commitment to protect our national monuments, we remain steadfast in our position and won’t return to the trade show in Utah,” Patagonia’s CEO said.

In this Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, photograph, buyers pass by a sign in the Patagonia exhibit at the Outdoor Retailer & Snow Show in the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. Major players in the outdoor industry jumped into the political fight over national monuments two years ago and now have added climate change and sustainable manufacturing to their portfolio. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

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More than five years after exiting Salt Lake City in a huff over Utah’s opposition to national monuments, the Outdoor Retailer trade show is heading back to the Beehive State despite state leaders’ unwavering vow to fight the Biden administration’s decision to restore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

The show’s owner Emerald Expositions on Wednesday announced it has reached a deal with Salt Lake City officials to relocate the show to the Salt Palace Convention Center next year from Denver, where the twice-yearly show has been held since 2018.

“We have a strong relationship with Salt Lake City and a committed partner in Mayor Erin Mendenhall, whose values align with ours following tremendous investments in clean energy and a strong commitment to public lands. This proved to be a real turning point in our recent negotiations,” Outdoor Retailer said in a statement.

In response, many major exhibitors and industry groups said they won’t come unless Utah’s Republican leaders abandon efforts to reduce the monuments.

Joined by Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Visit Salt Lake President Kaitlin Eskelson at the Salt Palace Wednesday, Mendenhall spoke directly to the issues that drove OR five years ago.

“We are thrilled to have Outdoor Retailer come back and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Salt Lake City as we fight for the protection and preservation of our precious natural resources and spaces in the entire state of Utah,” she said. “This was not a financial negotiation. This was about values.”

Emerald’s decision to return to Salt Lake City comes in the face of boycott threats from major outdoor brands and two influential outdoor industry groups, the Conservation Alliance and Outdoor Alliance. In a Jan. 4 letter to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, the groups’ executive directors cautioned the state against filing its threatened lawsuit aimed at reversing President Joe Biden’s October 2021 decision restoring the boundaries of two Utah monuments that had been slashed by the Trump administration.

“For 20 years, Utah was a popular location for Outdoor Retailer and many in our industry would love to see the show return to Salt Lake City,” wrote executives Adam Kramer and Brady Robinson. “However, it would run contrary to the outdoor industry’s values to return the show to a state that is openly hostile to public lands and waters.”

Without an agreement from Utah to not litigate against the monuments, the groups would call on their members to boycott the show if it’s held in Utah, even at the risk of undermining the event’s viability.

“Utah is one of the best places for outdoor recreation in the world. There is a deep affection for the state across the whole for outdoor recreation community,” said Cramer, who heads the Outdoor Alliance. “When you couple that with efforts to undo protections for some of the most precious public lands. That’s completely antithetical to the outdoor community values. It doesn’t match up.”

This position was reaffirmed last month in a joint statement to Emerald from 24 outdoor companies that said they would not come to a show in Utah. The group included heavy hitters such as apparel maker Patagonia, REI and The North Face, all professing a love of Utah’s cultural and natural landscapes.

“We are disappointed the owners of Outdoor Retailer are blatantly ignoring the Indigenous Peoples, local activists and outdoor athletes who spent years working to conserve and protect wild lands in Utah by moving the show back to Salt Lake City,” Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert said on Wednesday. “Until we hear a firm commitment to protect our national monuments, we remain steadfast in our position and won’t return to the trade show in Utah.”

Mayor Wilson implored these companies and groups to reconsider their plans to boycott and engage with the state’s leaders on environmental issues.

“You certainly can’t influence if you’re not at the table. So please come,” she said. “We’re in a new era. And when it comes to our state’s environmental challenges, we need you now more than ever. We need your voice.”

The hardline taken by two sides in the monument debate set up a potential lose-lose situation for Emerald. Remain in Colorado and lose exhibitors frustrated with Denver’s high costs and lack of proximity to outdoor recreation spots, or move to Salt Lake City and lose exhibitors frustrated with what many see as Utah’s noxious opposition to landscape conservation.

Emerald executives said they were returning the show to Utah with the hope of “effecting change.”

“It would be wrong for us to leave the way we did and simply go back as if nothing happened,” said OR show director Marisa Nicholson in the company’s statement. “In reality, leaving after 2017 has not brought the change we had hoped for, so we will push back, not pull back.”

Meanwhile, Colorado leaders had made making their own passionate pitches, emphasizing their policy differences with their Utah counterparts.

In a January letter to Emerald, Colorado’s Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and others asked the company to keep the show in Denver, citing the Centennial State’s commitment to environmental stewardship. They even highlighted their support of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s efforts to protect Bears Ears.

“We view [the monument’s] restoration as one of the most important steps taken by this new administration to both protect our nation’s public lands and restore our commitment to work with our nation’s tribes to deliver the justice they deserve,” wrote Polis and state’s two senators. “The leaders of the outdoor industry have spoken with an articulate and strong voice that this cornerstone event belongs in a state that shares its values on public land and recreation. Colorado is the perfect match to continue as the home of the Outdoor Retailer Show.”

For his part, Utah’s Gov. Cox has previously rejected the very premise that Utah is hostile to conservation. His administration sees the monument designations as federal “overreach” that could be doing more to harm Bears Ears by ushering in heavy visitation without providing resources to adequately manage it.

Still, he publicly professed a wish for the show’s return, which was fulfilled Wednesday.

“This is great news for Utah’s expanding outdoor industry and all those who love getting outside and experiencing the state’s natural beauty. We look forward to welcoming Outdoor Retailers back to Salt Lake City,” Cox told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday.

President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears in 2016 at the request of five tribes with ancestral ties to the lands surrounding Bears Ears Buttes after decades of looting and vandalism to the archaeological sites and artifacts that abound on Cedar Mesa and surrounding canyons west of Blanding.

In October, the governor’s office posted a video message from Cox to the outdoor industry, inviting its members back to Salt Lake City for the trade show that brought $45 million a year to Utah. Cox highlighted Salt Lake City’s $4 billion airport upgrade and the 700-room Hyatt Regency under construction near the Salt Palace, where the show had been staged for years.

“We’ve missed you for the past several years, and we’ve made some improvements while you’ve been away,” the governor said then. “The outdoor industry is important to Utah, and the Outdoor Retailer trade show is important to Utah. We invite you back, and we’ll take great care of you.”

In the message, he pledged to work with the Interior Department to “establish sustainable ways” to manage Utah’s cherished public lands. But in the months since he has refused to cancel plans to sue that federal agency in the hopes of reversing Biden’s order protecting some of Utah’s most cherished landscapes, namely Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has already hired an outside law firm, Washington-based Consovoy McCarthy, to handle the case.

According to the firm’s pitch to land the contract, its lawyers don’t want to just reduce the Utah monuments, but also propose taking down the landmark law that empowers presidents to designate monuments in the first place, the 1906 Antiquities Act.

The Legislature has set aside $5 million to fund the suit, which has yet to be filed.