When Outdoor Companies Band Together to Protect Wild Places

The Trump Administration is trying to shrink the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The Trump Administration is trying to shrink the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The outdoor recreation economy in the U.S. alone brings in more than $880 billion annually, and it depends heavily on one vital component: the outdoors. Without conserved, accessible wild areas, businesses in this sector will wilt—which is why the Conservation Alliance makes sense. It’s a nonprofit and network of more than 235 companies that use membership dues to award grants to grassroots conservation groups. It was founded by outdoor industry leaders REI, Patagonia, The North Face and Kelty in 1989, and has a mission to protect wild places “for their habitat and recreation values.” This alliance has also developed an advocacy component in the last few years to defend public lands under political attack.

What Does the Conservation Alliance Do?

While the alliance’s work clearly benefits its members, it’s been successful in protecting numerous natural areas, which also has widespread effects. And its focus on supporting local organizations is notable. Much like the independent philanthropy of key members like Patagonia and REI, the alliance chooses to work with smaller, community-based conservation projects, and it specifically requires grantees to “engage grassroots citizen action.” In its first three decades, it used more than $20 million to conserve 51 million acres of wildlands and 3,107 miles of rivers, stop or remove 34 dams, designate five marine reserves, and purchase 14 climbing areas.

Member companies pay dues based on their annual revenues, which go directly to grants. Members nominate and vote on grants twice annually. In some lights, the alliance can be seen as a kind of corporate-level giving circle. In 2018, it gave an all-time high of $1.9 million to 55 conservation projects and added 32 members. The alliance also runs “Backyard Collective” events—employee volunteering programs that engage team members in grantees’ local environmental projects. In 2019, the alliance is on track to meet its goal of giving out $2 million.

“This will be a record for the Conservation Alliance, and a perfect milestone to celebrate on our 30th Anniversary,” Communications and Grant Program Manager Josie Norris tells us. She also says an area of ongoing challenge for the alliance is its lean size. “We’re a very small organization of only three staff… [we] have to stay very focused on what we do, and do it well. This means that we have to say no to a lot of opportunities.”

Defending Public Lands

In 2017, the Conservation Alliance launched the Public Lands Defense Fund to supplement its core grantmaking, with initial commitments from Patagonia, the North Face and Arc’teryx. This fund supplies discretionary, urgent grants relating to threats to public lands “by political leaders who want to undermine [their] protections, or sell them off entirely.”

A recent Defense Fund grant was an emergency $55,000 in late 2018 to Earthjustice, which will fund the group’s court challenge to President Trump’s attempt to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. This effort also falls in line with Patagonia's own funding efforts to protect Bears Ears.

And along with the fund, the alliance is engaged in public land defense advocacy. It provides training to member companies and employees on protecting public lands through lobbying, strategic communications and other means.

Outdoor Companies as Advocates

“We have brought hundreds of outdoor industry leaders to Washington, D.C., for the first time to teach them how to advocate on behalf of our public lands,” Norris says. In March 2019, 40 Conservation Alliance members participated in the annual “Fly In.” This program consisted of one day of education and training, and a second day of meeting with and lobbying 36 senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle. Members thanked politicians for recent wins like the passage of the Natural Resources Management Act, a major public lands package, and advocated for conservation priorities specific to their company’s geographic regions. Reversing the current administration's decision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas industries was another main focus.

Alliance member Annie Nyborg, director of sustainability at Peak Design, attended these events. In a follow-up blog, she encouraged other environmental enthusiasts and advocates to become more active through activities like talking to people about conservation, marching, lobbying on the hill, writing op-eds in local outlets or using social media. She writes that her company is “still learning how best to utilize [our] voice and resources in supporting the issues we care about. This trip reaffirmed my belief in the power of showing up, in the literal sense, to fight for what you believe in.”

This combination of grantmaking, volunteering and advocacy is an interesting example of outdoor companies and their employees demonstrating both environmental stewardship and civic engagement. But the alliance hopes these additional efforts won’t always be as urgent.

“Most of our funding continues to support proactive conservation efforts, but current political challenges force us to make grants to defend the gains we’ve made over the past 30 years,” John Sterling, executive director of the Conservation Alliance, said in a statement. Similarly, Norris tells us, “We are hopeful that our investment in defense is short-term” until the “political climate shifts.”