Outdoor gear makers gave up their boycott of Utah while gaining nothing, George Pyle writes

You can only threaten to leave so many times before you have to go for good.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A cake on display at a news conference announcing the return of Outdoor Retailer to Salt Lake City, on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

When he was a university student around about 1950, my father was surrounded by — or chose to surround himself with — several self-styled revolutionaries. They deplored the ignorance of their parents, the sorry state of the working class and the way Black people were treated, even though they didn’t really know any.

When one of the group got a respectable job, others in the cadre teased him about selling out. The friend denied that he had gone over to the other side, insisting that he was going to carry his proletarian beliefs deep into the establishment and there work to liberate the oppressed.

“I’m boring from within,” he declared. And was never heard from again.

Whether to try to accomplish change from within the system or from the outside has long been a choice activists must make. Individuals generally must choose one or the other, though an alliance of outsiders and insiders might be the most effective.

Last week, in a development that didn’t get the attention it might otherwise have received if the Utah Legislature hadn’t been sucking up all the oxygen by being astoundingly hateful to transgender people, we learned of a new inside-outside roadmap soon to be followed by people in the very big business of making gear for outdoor recreation.

The Outdoor Retailers trade show left Utah for Denver in 2018, slamming the door behind it. But organizers announced Wednesday that the twice-annual, hotel-filling extravaganza would return to Salt Lake City next year. At least, some of it will.

The show quit Utah in protest over the devotion by the state’s political establishment to continue to argue, sue and otherwise be obnoxious to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, shrunk by Donald Trump in 2017 and restored by Joe Biden in 2021.

Many of the outdoor recreation industry’s leading brands had made it clear that they didn’t feel right dropping some $45 million a year into the cash registers, and tax coffers, of a state that was trying so hard to shrink the market for tents and kayaks and fishing poles and those spikey things you pound into the sides of steep rocks.

Such a boycott had reportedly been contemplated for some time. But you can only threaten to leave a state — a business partnership, a marriage, a job or any kind of relationship — for so long before you actually have to pack up and go, or the threat loses its meaning. Of course, once you’ve gone, that might also cost you any bargaining power you could have had.

But what really leaves you without leverage is when you don’t get what you said you absolutely had to have in order to come back, but you come back anyway.

There were always reasons for the retailers to stay, or to return. Salt Lake City is much closer than Denver is to mountains and to lakes, where gear can get hands-on try-outs. It’s got a better airport and a shiny new downtown hotel. And it’s cheaper. But Gov. Spencer Cox and the rest of the state’s political leadership showed no signs of budging on the monument dispute.

Finally, in a deft political and face-saving sleight of hand, someone at Outdoor Retailers figured out that Salt Lake City, unlike Utah, is governed by Democrats. Democrats who like lots of money coming to town. That allows the show to return to the city as a statement of solidarity with the large but largely powerless portion of the state’s polity that actually favors preserving wild lands rather than digging them up.

Sort of like Western corporations during the Cold War being happy to set up shop in West Berlin and ignore all that unpleasant East Germanness going on around it.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, among others, argued that the outdoor gear companies didn’t get the changes they wanted by leaving, so maybe the could get them by returning and being involved.

“You certainly can’t influence if you’re not at the table,” Wilson said. “So please come.”

Except not everyone is. Some of the industry’s biggest names — including Patagonia, REI, Yeti and The North Face — are yet unwilling to come crawling back until the monument matter is settled their way. They will need more than sympathetic noises from Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County leaders to say all is forgiven.

Maybe, by playing good cop-bad cop, the outdoor gear industry can have an influence on Utah that it could never have by being all in or all out. But what’s more likely is that the anti-public lands faction that controls state government will feel like the other fellow just blinked and there’s no need to agree to anything.

Which is too bad, for the future of the outdoor gear makers. And for the future of Utah.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is lobbying for the World Coffee and Donut Exhibition to move to Salt Lake City.


Twitter, @debatestate