More than 100 outdoor-recreation companies riled Utah's Republican establishment Tuesday by formally petitioning President Barack Obama to designate a national monument surrounding Canyonlands National Park near Moab, a major tourist hub for everything from mountain biking to navigating the area's famous slot canyons.
Leaders of the outdoor industry — including Mountain Hardware, The North Face and Patagonia — say they know they're going up against political opposition in Utah and want to take the idea to a national level.
"We believe this sends a powerful message to all of Utah's congressional delegation," said Peter Metcalf, president and chief executive of Black Diamond Equipment Inc., a Salt Lake City-based company that has been acquiring other hardware makers around the globe. "This would become one of the greatest national monuments in the West."
With Congress refusing to move any land-protection bills, the companies are reaching out to Obama, who can use his presidential authority and political capital after reelection to designate a monument on his own, said Ashley Korenblat, president of Western Spirit Cycling in Moab, a mountain biking town that draws people from around the world.
The outdoor-industry leaders say Utah is blessed with a $4 billion recreation economy that's more important than mining or oil-and-gas drilling on federal lands around Canyonlands National Park. A monument would protect 2,200 square miles around a park one-quarter of that size. It would take in more of the Colorado and Green rivers and the Dirty Devil River, and such landmarks as Labyrinth Canyon, Fiddler Butte and Robbers Roost.
The proposal clashes with Utah's political leaders who are demanding more control over energy development on federal lands. At issue is legislation signed in March by Gov. Gary Herbert giving the federal government until 2014 to relinquish control over nearly 47,000 square miles of land in Utah — national forests, federal range lands, national recreation areas and the vast Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which President Bill Clinton designated by fiat in 1996.
"We certainly hope we don't have another Bill Clinton approach to creating a monument," Herbert said Tuesday in a statement issued by his top aides. They said nobody had pitched the latest monument proposal to Herbert personally.
The outdoor companies have been pressuring Herbert to support land protection by threatening to take a lucrative trade show out of Salt Lake City. At the last Outdoor Retailer show in August, corporate titans sitting on the board of the Outdoor Industry Association asked Herbert, a big proponent of energy development, about his "vision" for outdoor recreation.
Herbert acknowledged he didn't have one, but agreed to deliver a plan accommodating outdoor recreation in time for the January show, said Craig Mackey, the director of recreation policy for the Boulder, Colo.-based Outdoor Industry Association.
At the same time, organizers are shopping for another city that could handle a trade show that pours more than $40 million annually into the Utah economy. The Outdoor Retailer show has grown so large organizers have had to push 300 of 1,200 manufacturers and suppliers out of a convention hall into outdoor tents. Attendees say they have to book hotel rooms as far as 20 miles away. Herbert has promised to submit a plan to satisfy show organizers.
Metcalf said the Moab area is as important to the outdoor crowd as the Uintah Basin of eastern Utah is to drillers. He called it a matter of zoning — putting federal lands to their best use.
Drillers have lately started buying up leases in the Moab area. Other groups from the Sierra Club to Great Old Broads for Wilderness complained to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in 2011 about "rampant off-road-vehicle abuse, proposed uranium and tar sand mining, and oil and gas development" in Utah's canyon country.
"It's about preserving federal lands in their current state," said Metcalf, who expects the monument proposal to start a national dialogue. "It will take some time. I don't think any of us expects an immediate response."