Outdoor Retailer and Utah have been in the news a lot lately. President Obama designated the Bears Ears area a National Monument earlier this year in the face of intense opposition from state lawmakers, local ranchers and the oil lobby. The Governor of Utah is making moves to reverse Obama’s action, which tipped the first domino – Patagonia decided to opt out of OR if it was to be hosted in Utah. Other companies followed suit and protested Utah’s Governor by leaving OR. Money talks – OR published that it is entertaining proposals from alternative host cities.
The recent controversy and uproar of the outdoor community is catching up to what is not a new story. Local ranchers and state lawmakers have been attempting to block the National Monument designation for over 80 years. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes worked with Franklin D. Roosevelt to protect lands in the southeast corner to Utah. Obama’s decision broke a multi-generational tug-of-war and capped his protection of 553 million acres of public land. The battle over southeast Utah isn’t likely over in light of recent economic/environmental decisions made by 45’s administration. The resistance to a National Monument is based on fossil fuel exploration and economic stability through job creation; the latter being an urgent goal of many regions in America. That sense of urgency often trumps long-term, sustainable solutions that would honor our country’s people, wild places and a clean future.
So what about Vermont? Unlike many western states, Vermont is largely privately owned – only 15% is considered public land. Over 70% of VMBA chapters’ trails are on private land that are well protected by Vermont’s Landowner Liability Act. The lion’s share of our public land is managed by the Dept. of Forests, Parks and Recreation, the US Forest Service and the Dept. of Fish & Wildlife. Town forests and other municipal lands make up the balance. These land managers are incredibly supportive of mountain biking and other forms of recreation in Vermont. It’s unlikely that what Utah is going through would be experienced here for multiple reasons. However, we have our own version that could have an equally impactful – and possibly negative – outcome.
A new state administration has opened the door to a whole new discussion about “the potential of outdoor recreation.” The Vermont Trails and Greenways Council recently published an economic impact study, which has earned a lot of attention. The study was well done and paints a partial picture of the…”potential.” At the same time there has been some discussion about Vermont’s capacity to be an appealing relocation opportunity for outdoor oriented businesses. So what’s the issue with illustrating economic vitality with growing relocation appeal? The trail infrastructure that is the foundation of that economic vitality and international appeal is built by YOU – the volunteer. VMBA chapters account for over 20,000 hours of volunteer time annually. If you were to throw in the Catamount Trail Association, Vermont Huts and others, it adds up quickly.
Like Utah, we have our own dominos – and they’re starting to get a little shaky. There will be a tipping point defined by the moment demand for Vermont trails exceeds the willingness of our business community and state leadership to meaningfully invest in trail stewardship in a way that honors the desires of their most valuable asset – YOU. If these ends meet, we all win. Say what you will about the over-monetization of trails, if we don’t represent well in that conversation and rally for the support we need – we won’t lose a National Monument, but we will lose our opportunity to decide what gets protected and how on our terms.
So what is VMBA doing about it? VMBA has developed the Vermont Outdoor Innovation Coalition (VOICe). It’s a collection of successful Vermont businesses that share an appreciation for the role that trails play in their successes. They’re employers that want happy/healthy employees and families. They’re ready and willing to take this enthusiasm to state leadership. This group’s influence will meaningfully bridge state leadership priorities with the desires of individual Vermonters. VMBA’s membership is up over 300% in the last four years. We have amazing momentum and we can’t let up in 2017.