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Public Lands

Opinion: The outdoor industry’s opportunity to protect public lands is now, and we’re doing it all wrong

Jimmy Funkhouser, founder of Denver’s Feral Mountain Co. says that our $887 billion impact is not what’s important.

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Jimmy Funkhouser

The fight over public lands has been brewing for a long time, and the outdoor industry has thrust itself into the fray. Patagonia and others have led the charge, and everyone who is anyone has something to say on the matter.

When President Obama signed the REC Act into law everything seemed to change. In short, the act ensures that the economic output of the outdoor recreation industry is counted as part of the country’s GDP for the first time. We are now a statistic. Not surprisingly, the industry rejoiced. For the first time, politicians would have to engage with outdoor industry leaders as economic powerhouses rather than just advocates fighting for flowery special interests.

In a zero-sum game that’s a good thing, but only to the extent that we don’t lose our soul in the process. There is nothing necessarily wrong with having economic influence, but it must be wielded responsibly. I continue to see the number thrown around. I even hear shop owners talk about it. $887 Billion. That’s the economic impact of the industry, and we wear it like a badge of honor. But there’s a problem with that approach.

Nobody else fucking cares.

I’ve grown weary of the economic arguments for protecting wild spaces. Everyone from the Outdoor Industry Association to small shop owners continue to trumpet the idea that the industry cannot survive without a healthy assortment of public spaces for customers to enjoy, and that we need to leverage our voice to protect our economic interests.

That is likely true, but it’s the wrong message. The fundamental flaw in this logic is that it commoditizes the land in much the same way that oil and gas has been doing for decades. Do we really expect people to connect with that approach?

Businesses come and go. One day Patagonia will be gone. It’s hard to imagine, but it is true. Mountains are bigger than businesses, and certainly bigger than the industry. The industry (and constituent businesses) will only maintain its credibility to the extent that it supports the protection of public lands for the INTRINSIC reasons that public lands need to be protected, rather than reasons of economic self-interest.

Bears Ears
The Bears Ears region in southern Utah is sacred and beautiful, not to mention a hub for outdoor recreation. Tim Peterson

We need to spend more time talking about the real things. Conservation of species. The value of adventure. Freedom of movement. Things that really matter. Patagonia doesn’t intrinsically matter. Feral doesn’t intrinsically matter. We only exist to the extent that we deserve to exist. People get to decide, and they will. But people shouldn’t get to decide whether or not the Greater sage grouse survives or disappears. People shouldn’t get to decide whether or not mountaintops get exploded to make way for coal exploitation.

The survival of the outdoor industry is not, and should not be an intrinsically important consideration when determining whether or not we should protect public spaces, and we do ourselves (and the industry) a disservice if we fall into the trap of believing that. That cannot and should not be the message. We need to educate people on the intrinsic value of wilderness. People connect with that message because everyone can be brought to understand what that message means to THEM.


When citizens understand the intrinsic value of wilderness they take action. They vote with their dollar. They approach stewardship of the land more mindfully. They support politicians that share their values. They take the REAL action that has an impact on the protection of public lands, and if you’re still interested in this angle, likely protect your economic interests as well.

Yvon Chouinard seems to understand this, and the Patagonia message continues to reflect that. As a result people connect with the brand emotionally, and that is why they will continue to win. The rest of the industry needs to take note.

There is some truth to the concern that the industry only survives to the extent that public lands exist, but it’s also true that Exxon Mobile only exists to the extent that they get to extract economic value from these lands as well. Unfortunately we cannot match their argument on economic grounds, so we need to shift the conversation. We need to continue to be different, and we will only inspire real action to the extent that we do just that.

—Jimmy Funkhouser, founder of Feral Mountain Co.

Read more at Feral’s blog.