President Trump’s announcement of plans to cut the size of two national monuments last December, published on the front page of the New York Times, sent shock waves through much of the U.S. The move came months after the president requested a review of 27 monuments in regards to a requirement that presidents set aside “the smallest area compatible with proper care and management” in April. Exemplifying his commitment to protecting economic interests over environmental ones, the removal of protections from large swaths of publicly held land summoned undefined environmental risks and an outpouring of opposition. Furthermore, due to the president and EPA’s alliances, one would expect this to be a conflict between industry and populace, between privatization and public control. Remarkably, the opposition of Patagonia and the outdoor gear industry as a whole to Trump on environmental policy issues has served to advance corporate interests while real effects on policy take a backseat.
That the steepest opposition to the president’s attack on public lands came from a billion-dollar industry—outdoor gear—is more than a little ironic. Patagonia immediately proclaimed on social media that, “the president stole your land,” naming the plan “the largest elimination of protected land in American history” and promising a lawsuit. In doing so, the corporation solidified its public perception as a leader in environmental protection as well as outdoor apparel. Other outdoor gear retailers, including REI and North Face, released similar statements of opposition, sometimes accompanying them with significant financial commitments. The Outdoor Industry Association agreed to move its semi-annual trade show—a $45 million prize—from Utah to Colorado in protest of the former’s support of the president. Renowned for laying low politically, the removal of protections from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase seems to have galvanized the outdoors industry. The threat of potentially irreversible damage to the environment seems to have provided the industry with a rallying cry, propelling Patagonia to stardom.
The president’s reworking of the two monuments’ boundaries reflected his interest in boosting mineral and fossil fuel industries. Grand Staircase-Escalante is home to one of the largest recoverable coal deposits in the country. By removing protections that put this and other natural resources off limits, the White House reaffirmed their favor of industry over environmental resources.
Predictably, the outdoor gear industry, which depends on the availability of public lands, fiercely opposes the president. The 1906 law outlining the procedure for the formation of national monuments and parks makes no mention of the possibility of removing protections, a fact that Trump ignored. Patagonia cast its protest of the Trump administration’s stance on protected lands as a continuation of the longstanding struggle between the interests of the energy industry and that of the environment, as well as its own position at the forefront of this struggle. The company framed its actions as representative of the people’s interests, in contrast to the elite and immoral interests of Trump’s industrial corporations. In reality, defense of public lands is part of Patagonia’s surge to leadership in outdoor retail, an unprecedented explosion of profits and influence, and perhaps a decline in their proclaimed activist efforts. In a recent article, the New York Times outlined how a new class of “activist CEOs” promote their brand via public stances on hot-button issues. Indeed, Patagonia reported a revenue surge immediately after releasing its stance on Bears Ears, and Forbes recently named its founder, Yvon Chouinard, a billionaire. This newfound corporate recognition is in contradiction to the company’s proclaimed commitment to five percent growth—a rate that was tripled in 2016 and continues to grow. Even Chouinard’s book, published in 2012 and titled Responsible Company, threatens to pass the billion dollar mark.
Clearly, Patagonia and the outdoor gear industry as a whole have smoothly incorporated anti-Trump environmental policy into their business plan. Patagonia firmly maintains that its culture of environment-over-profit is alive and well. However, the question looms: will the environment benefit? Trump’s move is unprecedented, relying on no more than a requirement that presidents set aside a minimum of land for federal protection. There is no procedure for removal of these protections, and the battle over its legality will likely drag on for years. Regardless of these suits’ potential for success, they are far from being realized, meaning that protected lands are in turmoil. Perhaps the fate of these monuments is no more Patagonia’s concern than Trump’s. Sure, the industry may begin its destruction soon, but Patagonia remains richer than ever. Only time will tell whether the company’s efforts will save public lands. In the meantime, whose wealth and influence has benefited from the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante disaster? A billion dollar industry. Sound familiar?
Jesse Marley is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at email@example.com.