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Outdoor retailers stand up for public lands in the face of Trump administration rollbacks

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Despite operating for more than 40 years and pulling in millions in annual revenue, Patagonia, one of the country’s largest outdoor retailers, has never run a television advertisement.

Never, not once — until now.

Just days before Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was set to release his final recommendation of which of the 21 national monuments still under review by the department will be reduced, rescinded, or left alone, Patagonia ran a television ad in Zinke’s home state of Montana, as well as in Utah. In Nevada, the company also ran a radio advertisement. All told, Patagonia spent $700,000 to get these messages out to the public.

But the ad was not meant to attract more customers or hawk gear; it was meant, instead, as a call to action. In the ad, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard talks about his personal experience with public lands, from his years spent climbing some of the country’s most precarious cliffs and rock faces to moments fishing in tranquil lakes and streams.

“Our business was built on having wild places,” Chouinard says in the ad. “Public lands have never been more threatened than right now, because you have a few self-serving politicians that want to sell them off and make money.”

It’s a pointed comment, one that cuts right to the heart of the Trump administration’s push to reduce or completely rescind certain national monuments, like the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah which was designated by President Obama in the final month of his presidency. When President Donald Trump first signed the executive order directing Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review 27 national monuments across the United States in April of this year, Trump used an economic message to justify potentially shrinking — or rescinding altogether — public lands, arguing that their designation curtails things like energy independence and economic growth.

Patagonia, however, takes a different approach to the issue of public lands and economic development, arguing that the preservation of wild spaces helps fuel an outdoor industry that has only grown in recent years. Today, the outdoor recreation industry sustains 7.6 million jobs and generates $887 billion in consumer spending annually; oil, coal, and gas, by contrast, employ just over 1 million.

It seems like there is a lot of misinformation out there about protected public lands and what public lands can or can’t do for our economy and jobs,” Hans Cole, Patagonia’s director of environmental campaigns and advocacy, told ThinkProgress. “We want to help people understand at a basic level that removing protections from public lands and opening them up for development is not necessarily a great economic driver.”

The television ad was hardly Patagonia’s first foray into the melée of environmental politics. The company has prioritized sustainability and conservation for decades, with regional stores awarding small grants each year to local environmental organizations. They’ve also been involved in national political campaigns since 2004, funding get-out-the-vote efforts during both presidential and midterm elections.

During the 2016 presidential election, Patagonia ran voter registration drives out of their stores, and closed shop on Election Day to ensure that employees could go out and vote. The company also poured $1 million into a campaign dubbed “Vote Our Planet,” to encourage customers to vote up and down the ballot for candidates who prioritized environmental issues.

At the presidential level, at least, that campaign did not pay dividends. But Patagonia hasn’t shied away from continuing to push for environmental protection and conservation as the Trump administration sets about dismantling those policies. In February, the company joined a coalition of outdoor retailers — collectively worth billions of dollars in revenue — in pulling out of the industry’s semi-annual trade show, traditionally held in Salt Lake City, Utah, in protest of the state’s political leadership’s stance on Bear’s Ears National Monument (at the federal level, Utah’s congressional delegation universally supports shrinking or rescinding the monument).

Public lands have never been more at risk and never more in the spotlight, nationally,” Cole said. “This is a moment where if we’re going to take action, this is the time to do it.”

With the Trump administration reviewing 21 different national monuments, accounting for millions of collective acres of protected lands across the country, outdoor retailers have bolstered their advocacy efforts with a new sense of urgency. Immediately following the executive order, REI, the North Face, and Patagonia all released statements decrying the move. In July, REI launched a campaign to encourage customers to submit comments in support of maintaining public monuments.

“Our country’s public lands define who we are,” the company wrote on its website. “These are the places where we work, where we play and where we connect to our shared history. Now is the time to stand up for these places—places that help us live a life outdoors.”

Despite taking a clear stance against the Trump administration, outdoor retailers like REI and Patagonia are quick to point out that these campaigns are about policy, not partisanship. Polling would indicate they have little reason to fear losing customers over their activism: Americans overwhelmingly support maintaining protections for public monuments, and nearly all public comments submitted during the review were in support of either maintaining or expanding current designations.

Nonetheless, Patagonia wanted to make sure that it did everything in its power to educate the public about what’s at stake when it comes to access to public lands.

We feel like more people need to know and be aware of what’s going on,” Cole said. “What we hear from our audience is that public lands are important to us and part of our national heritage. These lands belong to us and we need to protect them for future generations.”

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