After a five-year hiatus, the Outdoor Retailer (OR) trade show is returning to Salt Lake City in 2023 in spite of Utah officials’ ongoing attacks of two national monuments in the state. In 2017 OR left Utah in response to the state’s hostile stance towards conservation, particularly Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. The Biden administration restored the monument boundaries to those originally designated by former president Barack Obama in 2016, which had been significantly reduced in the interim by the Trump Administration.
Utah officials had pressed the Trump administration to take unprecedented action in overturning the monument designations, leading OR’s owner Emerald Expositions to relocate the twice-yearly show to Denver because such anti-conservation sentiment was antithetical to the goals and values of the outdoor industry.
Under Governor Spencer Cox, Utah has continued to pursue a lawsuit against the Interior Department to not only reverse Biden’s protective order but also to negate the 1906 Antiquities Act that allows presidents to designate monuments. Nevertheless, Outdoor Retailer cited in a statement their partnership with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, “whose values align with ours following tremendous investments in clean energy and a strong commitment to public lands,” as justification for a return to Utah.
So, the OR show is coming back to the Salt Palace Convention Center while a Washington-based law firm, Consovoy McCarthy, is seeking to gut the 1906 Antiquities Act at the behest of Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes. It’s a stunning reversal of conscience for those affiliated with OR, and not one that everyone is on board with. 24 companies, including influential behemoths Patagonia, REI and The North Face, said in a joint statement they would not return to a show in Utah. How the absences of industry mainstays will affect the viability of Outdoor Retailer remains to be seen, but Salt Lake is a town with a successful AAA baseball team, so Utahns have proven they’ll show out for the minor leaguers.
Meanwhile, the efficacy and even necessity of trade shows has come into question during the pandemic as outdoor industry sales have surged in the absence of such shows. Traditional sales and distribution models are evolving, in part because it appears the internet is here to stay. Trade shows themselves are relatively unsustainable with all the travel they require, so perhaps overlooking the Utah’s anti-conservation efforts while the federal government is doing the protective heavy lifting isn’t too much of a logical leap. Conservation and consumerism rarely align, after all.
Still, Mayor Mendenhall is right in thinking Outdoor Retailer’s return is a boon to Salt Lake City. The show brings an estimated $45 million to Utah each year, and its presence in Utah reaffirms the state’s place at the center of the outdoor industry. It’s even possible collective industry action could press Utah leaders to reverse course and support conservation at home. I wouldn’t get my hopes up, however, as Governor Cox insists the state’s actions are in opposition to federal overreach rather than conservation. Many states’ rights arguments have a sordid history with dubious intentions, but I’ll leave it up to each individual to decide whether they back the protection of lands with ancestral native ties to numerous tribes or “local” control over historically federal lands for myriad commercial uses.
And that’s where we’ll leave it for now. OR is returning to Utah while the state Legislature has set aside $5 million to fund the lawsuit seeking to gut protected lands and the 1906 Antiquities Act. OR leaving certainly didn’t change the state leaders’ minds. Who knows? Maybe coming home will.
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