In the beginning, there was an expansive swath of land sacred to numerous Indigenous tribes in southern Utah. There was a climber named Josh Ewing, and an advocacy organization called Friends of Cedar Mesa that did not have, as Ewing put it, “enough to pay a paycheck for someone to run the organization.”
There was no Bears Ears, not in monument form anyway.
“We were like, ‘Who out there in this universe cares about public lands and, you know, can support a little grassroots organization in the middle of nowhere?’” Ewing said.
Then there was a California-based apparel company called Patagonia with a 20-year history of donating to grassroots environmental movements. First, it gave Friends of Cedar Mesa a grant. Then it produced a short film about Ewing and the unique Indigenous structures at Cedar Mesa — an area within what would eventually become the Bears Ears National Monument — that were being threatened by mining operations, looting and ignorance.
Then it stuck around. Through the creation of the monument, its contraction, its restoration and threats of another contraction, it has established itself as a major player in the tug-of-war over open spaces in Utah. The company has been shaping opinions on land use and outdoor recreation in the state for more than a decade, but that may just be the tip of the mountain.
Last week, Yvon Chouinard, whose focus since he founded Patagonia in 1973 has resolutely been on protecting open spaces and combating climate change, made an unexpected but not out of character announcement. In August, he and his family donated the company’s shares to a trust and an environmentally focused nonprofit. The gesture will allow Patagonia to perpetuate its role as an environmental advocate around the globe for generations to come. In Utah, it should keep Patagonia in the fight to protect Bears Ears and may even allow the company to play a larger role in determining how the state preserves and manages its public lands going forward.
“Whether history is written now or in the future,” said Peter Metcalf, the former CEO of Black Diamond, a major brand in climbing and backcountry ski gear based in Salt Lake City, “the impact that Patagonia has had in this state on business as a whole, on the outdoor industry and conservation will be profound.”
Embedded in Utah
Patagonia’s environmental ethos, Metcalf says, has been literally embedded in the crags and mountains across Utah far longer than the company has been in the public eye.
Chouinard started as a climber, and the more durable and versatile pitons, carabiners, ice picks and crampons he famously constructed in a backyard tin shed didn’t just sprout the formation of Patagonia and its offshoot, Black Diamond. It also expanded climbing of all types out to more people across a greater variety of terrain — including throughout the mountains and deserts of Utah. Environmental awareness came as part and parcel of that movement.
“The process of becoming an environmentalist and thinking of a product and your impact in the world began with: You can’t be a successful climber without being in tune with nature,” Metcalf said. “Nature had to allow you to pass. You didn’t conquer a mountain.”
Metcalf also brought much of Chouinard’s activism with him when he moved Black Diamond to Salt Lake City in 1989. Few outdoor companies were making the state their home at that time. Yet Metcalf said he understood that placing the company closer to areas rich in climbing and backcountry skiing would allow it to be more innovative and in-tune with its customers while also positioning it to champion policies that would benefit them.
“It was all based upon what Patagonia did,” said Metcalf, the former general manager of Chouinard Equipment, the climbing gear maker from whose ashes Black Diamond was formed. “I mean, this is what you do.”
Metcalf also spearheaded bringing the nascent Outdoor Retailer show to Utah. He said he did it to highlight the state’s natural assets, vindicate his decision to move Black Diamond here and show off his company’s campus in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains.
That same show, years later, first thrust Patagonia’s connection to Utah into the national spotlight.
Bears Ears and boycotts
Most of Patagonia’s early work in Utah was through its “1% for the Planet” initiative, which provided grants to grassroots programs like the one it gave to Friends of Cedar Mesa in 2012. Ewing’s group supported a movement spearheaded by a coalition of five Indigenous tribes to gain federal protection of 1.4 million acres of culturally, recreationally and yes, minerally rich land near Blanding. In December 2016, then-President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears as a national monument.
But just a few months later, after Utah lawmakers asked former President Donald Trump to repeal the national monument status given to Bears Ears, Patagonia could no longer stay in the shadows. Saying the outdoor industry should not support a state that does not support recreation, Patagonia and Black Diamond led a boycott of the Outdoor Retailer show and pushed for it to be relocated. The following year, the show — which has been estimated to have an economic impact of about $40 million annually — found a new home in Denver.
Throughout the dust-up, Patagonia retained its brick-and-mortar store in Sugar House, where it has had a presence since 1986. According to spokesperson J.J. Huggins, the store helps fund 13 local environmentally focused nonprofits, including Wasatch Community Gardens and the Salt Lake section of the American Alpine Club.
When its five-year contract with Denver expired last year, Outdoor Retailer’s organizers opted to return to Salt Lake City. The winter show is scheduled to be held at the Salt Palace in January despite the threat of boycott from at least two dozen major brands. Again, Patagonia led the charge.
“When you had Black Diamond working hard at something, and then you get Patagonia putting it front and center, that’s like putting the spinnaker up on a boat in high wind,” Metcalf said. “And everybody else is like, ‘Follow that boat! We’re jumping on that campaign. Like, that’s important.’
“And it just galvanized the industry. And it brought so much national attention to it.”
But that’s not where the retailer’s efforts ended. Patagonia had staked itself to Bears Ears, and it wasn’t going down without a fight.
A year after the monument was created, Trump acquiesced to state lawmakers’ requests. He slashed Bears Ears to 15% of its original size while also cutting in half the 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase Escalante, a nearby area that had been given national monument status in 1996 by former President Bill Clinton. The New York Times reported that interests in oil and gas mining in protected parts of Bears Ears factored into the Trump administration’s decision to shrink the monuments.
Patagonia had braced for the move and quickly filed a lawsuit against Trump and the heads of several agencies, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the director of the Bureau of Land Management and the chief of the Forest Service. It argued that the Antiquities Act of 1906 that was used by Obama to create the monuments did not also give a president the power to reduce them.
“They said to the state of Utah, ‘Give us all what you got because we’re going to be in this from the thick and thin in the beginning to the end. And we’re going to apply not just nominal but real and substantive resources and get involved in the litigation,’” said Pat Gonzales-Rogers, the former inaugural executive director of the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition. “So there is no doubt they took a step that was quite bold and quite assertive for a company that has actually a for-profit bottom line.
“And that’s an incredible kind of movement that goes over and above a mere gesture.”
Gonzales-Rogers’ opinion does not reflect that of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, nor the Bears Ears Commission. The coalition, through co-director Charissa Wahwasuck-Jessepe, declined to comment for this story.
As of 2018, Patagonia had spent about $2 million to protect Bears Ears, according to a report by the New York Times. Yet the company armed the campaign with two other tools that likely carried even more value: its sway within the outdoor community and its high profile.
The concerted effort by the tribes was credited by Metcalf, Gonzales-Rogers and Ewing as the driving force behind the creation of the monuments. As many as 30 tribes have joined together to advocate for the preservation of the lands, on which are found a trove of ancient dwellings, petroglyphs and fossils. But, Gonzales-Rogers said Patagonia’s involvement brought the struggle into the public eye. It generated interest with a larger audience and gave the tribal coalition access to rooms from which it might have otherwise been excluded.
“It really lent license and voice to those particular areas that tribe could not speak to,” said Gonzales-Rogers, now a lecturer at the Yale School of Environment. “And so, their amplification as well as their support philosophically — as well as monetarily — was really critical because it really showed that this is an issue that crossed against borders.”
At the same time, the company’s decades-long effort to urge its customers to think beyond how an action will affect their outdoor playground to how it will affect the environment as a whole gained momentum. The film about Ewing, who moved to the area because of its climbing, played into that.
“We needed to get the people who were recreating at Bears Ears to be engaged in the advocacy and to support the tribes,” Ewing said. He added, “We knew with the politics in Utah, there had to be a broad coalition of people asking the Obama administration and Congress to protect it if it was ever going to happen.”
President Joe Biden restored both monuments to their original size in 2021, less than a year after taking office. However, earlier this year state Attorney General Sean Reyes led an all-Republican contingent of state leaders, including Gov. Spencer Cox, in filing a lawsuit challenging the monument designation and, more broadly, the Antiquities Act. They argue that the size of the monuments makes them unwieldy and that they would be better managed locally than at the federal level.
So the stage is set for another act in this drama, but this time Patagonia may play an even larger role.
In his letter to Patagonia customers, Chouinard wrote last week, “Instead of ‘going public,’ you could say we’re ‘going purpose.’”
The letter detailed the company’s latest step in its mission to serve as a vessel for saving the planet. Chouinard, his wife and two children donated their voting shares to a trust that they and their advisors will oversee and which will ensure Patagonia remains true to its environment-first directive. They donated the other 98% of the company’s shares, and therefore all of its annual profits to an environmentally focused nonprofit called the Holdfast Collective.
The Chouinards will pay about $17.5 million in taxes on the $3 billion gift, though Bloomberg estimates they will avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in future taxes. A similar donation of shares of a $1.6 billion electronics company made last year by entrepreneur Barre Seid to a conservative nonprofit — one that works against climate change legislation among other issues — was structured it in such a way that Seid will not owe any taxes from it.
The Holdfast Collective is a 501(c)(4), which means it can make unlimited political contributions, including for lobbying and to support or oppose candidates or legislation. If Patagonia continues to generate its current revenues, the nonprofit will have about $100 million to donate each year. By one estimate, that would place it among the 10 richest conservation organizations in the world.
Metcalf called it a “turbocharger” for the company’s enterprises.
“Money is the lubricant of politics,” he said. “And without the ability to fund campaigns and give to elected officials, you [can be] seriously handicapped. … That ability to fund educational campaigns and political officials? That is super powerful.”
Will Patagonia continue to use those funds to fight for federal protection of lands and expansion of recreational access in Utah? The short answer appears to be yes.
“We will continue to work with Tribes, grassroots activists and outdoor athletes to protect Bears Ears and other special places around Utah,” Huggins, the company spokesperson, said in an email, “and to work on the root causes of the climate crisis.”
If history — including a decade advocating for Bears Ears — is any indication, Patagonia will see this struggle to its end.
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