Black Diamond CEO Fights for Utah Environment — Against Utah Politicians

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In July, Peter Metcalf, CEO of Holladay, Utah-based Black Diamond Equipment, quit the state’s Ski and Snowboard Industry Working Group. In a March op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune, Metcalf took Utah governor Gary Herbert to task for backing state legislation that petitions the federal government to cede federal land to the state. Land that, although some Utahns find it disquieting, doesn’t “belong” to the state, but was federal to begin with, ever since the state was established in 1896.

A close reading of Metcalf’s editorial is hardly some liberal, tree-hugger’s cry for earth justice. In fact it’s all about common sense for the state’s cash register:

Utah’s remarkable natural beauty gives us an edge when it comes to convincing businesses to relocate. They see the unparalleled opportunities to hike, ski, kayak, camp, and spend time with their families as a significant attraction. I know. Drawn by the open spaces to ski, climb, and backpack, I moved our business from California to Salt Lake in 1991. Since then, Black Diamond has grown into a $145 million, publicly traded enterprise that employs nearly 300 people in Utah and many more globally.

However, Black Diamond is just a small part of a vigorous, growing outdoor industry in Utah. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, the active outdoor recreation industry contributes $5.8 billion annually to Utah’s economy, supports 65,000 Utah jobs, generates nearly $300 million in annual state tax revenues and produces nearly $4 billion annually in retail sales and services in Utah.

Herbert didn’t see it that way and told Metcalf that, in essence, if he didn’t want to play ball in the back rooms of the state capital, he should quite the state’s Ski and Snowboard Industry Working Group. And so Metcalf walked. (Note that Metcalf isn’t alone: Just last week the entire Outdoor Industry Association issued a warning to the governor that if he doesn’t play ball and work to protect the environment they’d move the $40 million annual Outdoor Retailer trade show to another state.)

We wanted to know a bit more about why Metcalf quit, what finally drove him out the door, and fired a few questions his way. The answers showcase just how deep the rift is between the outdoor industry in Utah and the state’s elected officeholders, and, perhaps, shows a way forward that will hurt Utah’s economy — even beyond what might happen if Outdoor Retailer leaves.

Can you provide some background on the working group? First, what was the last straw? Why now and not earlier?
This dates back to 2004 with the [Outdoor Retailer] trade show protest I led against a policy then Utah governor Leavitt favored, which threatened roadless wilderness. The result was creation of a governor’s task force that included me (which has lasted through three administrations: Leavitt, Walker, and Huntsmen), and focused on working with the outdoor recreation industry and other interested parties to both identify the iconic public lands of Utah and to be consulted with when there were public policy issues. In addition there was a recognition that the outdoor industry was a very important and vibrant economic sector in the state of Utah and more attention should be paid to it.

Because the state had a few folks looking after other industries the idea was hatched that they should also have a designated person for the outdoor and perhaps the ski manufacturers industries. That took many years to happen but finally about two or three years ago the funding was found and the the governor’s office of economic development (GOED) hired a designated person to look after the needs of Utah’s outdoor industry as well as its ski and snowboard manufacturing industry. That person is Riley Cutler. In 2011 Cutler organized the governor’s office of economic development ski and snowboard manufacturer’s working group. It is made up exclusively of the equipment manufacturers and distributors including Black Diamond, Wintersteiger, Blue House, Voile, Rossignol, and others.

So that’s the background. What made you walk?
Four things:
1. The state and governor’s litigation to take control of all federal lands in Utah.
2. The state’s massive RS2477 litigation [fighting the BLM's roadless rule authority].
3. Our congressional delegation’s (not including Matheson) introduction of Ski-Link legislation [to put a lift between The Canyons and Solitude ski resorts] in Congress and the governor’s public silence about it.
4. Finally, in response to my op-ed piece on several of these topics that the Salt Lake Tribune published, the governor responded with a personal letter to me in which he suggested that I resign if I was going to publicly challenge him in this manner.

I have more than a two-decade-long track record of working with Utah’s governors. For that matter I shared the floor with then-Governor Bangerter (which makes Herbert the fifth governor I have worked with and the first that I quit working with) in Park City when together we announced and discussed why we were moving to Utah from Southern California. I have met numerous times with our governor to discuss topics related to the stewardship of our public lands. I have written letters. I have attended events. He has been invited to Black Diamond and come and heard me speak to these issues; I have shared the floor of congressional hearings in Washington, speaking on opposite sides of an issue and we have exchanged correspondence as noted above. Clearly actions speak louder than words and the fact that Utah has moved to the vanguard of attacking the sanctity of the whole concept of federal public lands clearly indicates he has moved the state away from the moderate conservative policies of his predecessors to that of the radical right — a group that is challenging whether we should even have federal lands in the state, or legitimate policies by which to determine whether we leave some roadless or underdeveloped.

The proposed policies are dangerous not only for the vitality of Utah’s vibrant active outdoor recreation industry but for tourism, biodiversity, and a healthy environment for its citizens as well. Almost as important is the dangerous precedent they would set nationally if allowed to go through here in Utah.

Do you think this will be effective or is it sort of like saying the other side’s being unreasonable so it’s time to give them a taste of their own medicine?
No, it’s not a taste of their own medicine as you suggest.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. If you have zero effectiveness attempting to work as part of the team, you cannot be less effective working outside of the team. It is a bit like becoming part of a coalition government which you do if the other side agrees to accept some of your policies but you leave when the other side simply ignores you.

You’ve been one of the most vocal figures in the outdoor community on environmental issues, probably only second to Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard. But it seems like the only lever that’s getting pulled is talking about outdoor businesses in the context of dollars. Is that because that’s the only lever politicos actually understand, or is it because it’s proved more useful than others?
Thanks for asking this question.

Unfortunately environmental and conservation debates can be pretty philosophical and philosophy doesn’t translate so well in modern day politics. Policy cannot bridge the philosophy. Hence, dollars are truly the only universal language. It is the esperanto. It allows you to talk about job vs. job rather than jobs vs. conservation. It is about what kind of jobs, what kind of economy, what sort of future. It does appear that this is the only topic that an increasing number of politicians care about.

Why aren’t other industries as vocal? Why don’t we hear more from Ski Utah, for instance, and from the SIA, not to mention non-environmental advocates that still have skin in the game — clearly hotels, for instance. And why aren’t more people stepping up?
With a difficult economy, the uncertainty it causes impacts corporations and consumers alike. Uncertainty can cause stasis – lack of action. Most industries and most companies don’t want to engage in anything not directly related to the immediate bottom line. Maybe it’s too controversial. Maybe it costs some customers. That may upset some relationships. Many are too busy, too apathetic, or just not willing to understand the importance of the issues. That said, if people see an immediate, obvious threat to their wellbeing and there is a simple way to funnel that activism, then they will step up, as they did in the big protest we initiated in 2004. Unfortunately in 2012 that last-minute approach may be too late to make a difference.

Is the weapon of last resort leaving the state of Utah?
It’s not a weapon of last resort. But, yes, it’s a weapon.

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.

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{ 7 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Q

    Wait a second, am I missing something here? You had a seat at the table, a hard earned seat, and you walked away from it because one Governor wouldn’t work with you? Politics ebbs and flows, you may have had little influence inside but now, unless you leave, you have zero influence. Thank you for all you have done but please realize there will be no congratulation for walking away. There is an all out battle being waged in Utah and we could really use every fighter in the ring.

  • Tim

    I do not see that Peter is walking away–rather, as the letter from the governer suggested, a public challenge to state policy needs to come from outside the state government. In a way it is liberating as it opens doors for protest that cannot be walked through as a member of a state working group. Thank you Peter!

  • Tim K

    Well done Peter. As a resident of Utah I had no idea this working group existed or just how profitable outdoor recreation was to Utah. By Peter walking out he’s brought a lot of attention to the issue. Not just to the working group but to the fact that Utah’s wild lands are already a profit center, no thanks to the state, and there’s no need to change that.

  • MG

    Thanks for trying to impose your will upon those who choose to not listen to you. It will be like beating a dead horse when you try to make a stand with the Utah legislators. The only action that will actually make change is way too dramatic and futuristic for the current situation. The desperate reality is that Utah is way behind the rest of the country in realistic legislation. But the positive spin is that Utah is doing better financially than the rest of the country.

  • Dennis

    Thanks for standing up and taking on this fight. I don’t understand why people would be against public lands. These lands are for us and in the case of Utah they want to take these lands away from us and give them to oil, mining and other extraction industries.

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