Patagonia and the Federal Government Go Head to Head
March 22, 2019
Earlier this year, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, told me, “I didn’t realize how much power we have. And to not use it would be irresponsible.” It seems we’re just starting to see what he meant by that.
On Monday, immediately after President Trump issued a proclamation cutting Bears Ears National Monument into two significantly smaller areas, Patagonia unveiled its stark new homepage, designed to prod and provoke. Black and white, it read, simply, "The President Stole Your Land," then suggested that viewers tweet in protest or donate to tribal and public-land advocacy groups, including those now filing suit to block Trump’s action. The gear maker's move was promptly picked up by GQ, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Outside, USA Today, and other press, and was shared and endorsed on social media by New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich, among others. Patagonia, it was said, was “going to war” and giving “Trump the finger.” The website’s take-action button temporarily crashed from all the traffic.
Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the interior, was not pleased. On a Tuesday conference call with reporters he called Patagonia “a special interest group.” (Outside was not on the call. Despite repeated efforts to join, one of our editors was blocked. The previous day, the magazine had published a critical profile of Zinke by Elliott Woods that illustrated, among other issues, the secretary’s struggles to properly rig a fly rod.) Zinke continued his attack on Patagonia: “I think it’s shameful and appalling that they would blatantly lie in order to gain money in their coffers.” The interior department’s press secretary and Patagonia have since engaged in a Twitter scrap over Zinke’s use of charter flights, including one that cost taxpayers more than $12,000. Someone at Patagonia called those “private jets." The Interior’s press account called that #fakenews.
Then, on Friday afternoon, the official Twitter account of the House Committee on Natural Resources, which is chaired by Utah Congressman Rob Bishop, who pushed for the changes to the monument, chimed in. “Patagonia doesn’t want #MonumentsForAll,” the account tweeted, “They just want your money.” Embedded was an image playing off Patagonia’s home page design that read “Patagonia Is Lying To You.” The committee also sent out a weekly email newsletter on Friday with the subject line: "(Patagonia: don't buy it)."
These counterattacks challenged both the veracity and motive of Patagonia’s statement. That Patagonia’s action could help the brand's bottom line doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility. The company’s history of turning activism and philanthropy into profit is well-documented; the strategy is core to its mission, and in turns enables more activism. In 2016, the New Yorker called this phenomenon the “Patagonia feedback loop.” Its founder, Yvon Chouinard, has written and spoken at length about this idea, and sometimes reacts in an aw-shucks manner when bold moves result in financial gains. I asked Corley Kenna, the company’s senior director of communications, if the company had seen a sales surge following Monday’s website move. She wrote me: “We don’t even discuss how sales have been affected. The first television commercial we ever ran in our company’s history”—one that aired earlier this year about Bears Ears— “was to protect these lands, not sell clothing. We do this because it’s the right thing to do, period.”
Still, shortly after the company launched its homepage Monday, a Twitter user with nearly 100,000 followers wrote: “We all should go shop at @patagonia NOW! I bought some wonderful clothes tonight.” I’d be shocked if Patagonia put any sort of financial calculus into the release of its home page. But I’d also be shocked if sales didn’t rise this week. The criticisms of Zinke and the House Committee on Natural Resources, which are currently ringing around Twitter, might even fuel that phenomenon. As Chouinard has said, “You can’t buy advertising like that.”
There is also the question of the homepage’s accuracy. Was land in fact stolen on Monday? Should Trump’s proclamation hold up in court, the land removed from monument status at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante will continue to be managed by federal, taxpayer-funded agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. Bishop has favored legislation allowing the federal government to transfer public land to the states. But the idea of land transfer has become politically toxic in the past year, since the Republican party put it in its 2016 agenda. In the immediate future, such a possibility remains remote for the disputed Utah lands. “They will continue to be federal public lands,” says Josh Ewing, of the pro-monument non-profit group Friends of Cedar Mesa. “They just won’t all be protected public lands.” (Jonathan Thompson at High Country News recently published a good analysis of monument protections and what could be lost at Bears Ears.)
Zinke, who professes to love public land but has taken a beating in the Montana press over his monuments review, went out of his way in Tuesday’s conference to say that no land had been “transferred or sold.” It seemed to be the verb “stole” that really touched his nerve. When I asked Patagonia about that word choice, Hans Cole, the director of environmental campaigns and advocacy, cited the potential for oil and gas development and looting of ancient ruins and artifacts—an ongoing problem in the area. “The truth,” he wrote, “is that the President’s decision robs American citizens and future generations of something that belongs to all of us.”
That sentence would likely pass muster in Outside’s fact checking department. But the compelling and viral simplicity of “The President Stole Your Land” would receive more careful scrutiny. Mark Squillace, an expert on natural resources law at the University of Colorado, told me, “It’s not entirely accurate.” John Leshy, a public lands expert at the University of California Hastings college of law and a former solicitor for the interior department, called the statement’s veracity a question of interpretation. “Is it a theft of real estate,” he asked? “Not exactly. But if you interpret land to mean the magnificent resources on that land that now have less protection I think ‘stole your land’ is a fair characterization.”
Still, precision matters. A bulletproof version of the much-discussed statement might read “The President Unprotected Your Land” or “The President Failed to Properly Consult Tribal Interests and Left Your Land Open to the Potential for Energy Development.” Those, however, might not have generated so much news. Patagonia could have used “The President Grabbed Your Land,” but that was already taken, having been used repeatedly in recent months by members of the Utah delegation, including Bishop, to protest Obama’s designation of Bears Ears. And any slogan involving this president and the word “grab” seems likely to elicit a reflexive cringe, gag, or trip to the shower—not ideal for wartime messaging.
So how about this? “The President Appropriated Your Land.” With that in mind, I called up Shaun Chapoose, a member of the Ute Indian Tribe business committeeand one of the leading advocates for the original Bears Ears National Monument. His tribe is one of five suing to halt Trump’s proclamation. When I asked him about the Patagonia-Zinke row, he said, “I find it comical as hell. That was the same war cry that the Utah delegation was using—It was a land grab! It’s kind of ironic. The same tactic that was used to change the monuments is being used against them and they find it offensive.” He started laughing as he further considered the word “stole.” He said: “For me it’s like, ‘Welcome to our world.’”