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Tina Casey headshot

REI Activates Customers on Natural Monuments, Public Lands Policy

By Tina Casey

The outdoor recreation retailer REI stepped up its public lands preservation campaign last week with an email blast to its customers, urging them to weigh in on a Trump Administration "review" of more than two dozen National Monuments established under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The public comment period closed on July 10. If REI succeeds in motivating its customers to respond in significant numbers, the email campaign could mark a new level of corporate social responsibility in which companies lead consumers into political activism.

This is not the first time in recent months that REI has asked its customers to challenge the Trump Administration on public lands preservation issues, but the story has hit the mainstream media radar, so let's take a closer look.

Public lands preservation and the Antiquities Act

Land preservation is frequently a hot button issue under the best of circumstances, and President Trump turned up the heat to the nth degree earlier this year when signed an executive order directing the Department of the Interior to "review" as many as 40 national monuments, including several marine areas. The final tally is 27 land monuments to be reviewed with the apparent aim of opening them up to commercial development, downsizing them, or even rolling back their designation.

All of the monuments were established under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which provides the authority for the federal government to set aside land in the interest of science and historical preservation. The law empowers both the President and Congress to designate national monuments, either by executive order or by legislation.

The review period ordered by the President only dates back to national monuments established since 1996, a time frame for which the executive order provides no explanation. A total of almost almost 130 national monuments have been established under the Antiquities Act, and none have ever been un-designated.

One particular area of focus is the 1.3 million acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which former President's Obama designated last year shortly before his term ended.

The REI customer email

Over the past several months REI has regularly used its Facebook page to urge the public to voice its opinion on public lands issues. The new email represents a more intensive effort to reach directly to its customers.

CNN reports:

In an email campaign sent to customers Thursday, REI -- which stands for Recreational Equipment, Inc. -- explained to buyers that they are the "public in public lands" and asked them to "tell Secretary Ryan Zinke why our public lands need to remain protected now and for future generations."

"Our country's public lands define who we are. These are the places where we work, where we play and where we connect to our shared history -- and today, some of these places are in jeopardy," the note read.

A June 12 post on the REI blog underscores the central message -- "Our country’s public lands define who we are" -- and addresses the political angle:
Right now, the Department of the Interior, headed by Secretary Ryan Zinke, is undertaking an unprecedented review of 27 national monuments established by presidents from both parties since 1996, including the San Gabriel Mountains in California, Craters of the Moon in Idaho, and Bears Ears in Utah. More than 11 million acres of national public land are at stake.

The Department of the Interior wants to hear from you. And we want to make it easy for you to speak up.

As with the email, the blog post includes a link to an online comment form, along with some basic guidance on personalizing the message.

REI's campaign has an interesting angle in that the many of the company's customers have a built-in interest in preserving local, state and federal park lands.

That add-on helps amplify the company's message.

For example, when Trump signed the executive order, the top-rated blog Modern Hiker published a guide for public comment, including a list of all the sites under review.

Like REI, Modern Hiker avoided partisan references but emphasized the need for political action. Under the subheading "Should I Be Worried About Any of these Monuments?" comes this observation:

Rallying an industry -- and its customers

REI is moving beyond its customer base to impact the industry as a whole, urging the The Outdoor Industry Association, of which it is an active member, to take action.

The Outdoor Industry Association registered its concern over the order in April, having already issued an open letter  that threw down this gauntlet:

This open letter expresses the view of more than 200 leaders of large and small businesses in the outdoor industry, which contributes more than $650 billion annually to the U.S. economy, generates $80 billion in tax revenue and employs more than 6 million people...

OIA did not mince words regarding the importance of lands preservation including other national parks as well as national monuments (emphasis theirs):
It is an American right to roam in our public lands. The people of the United States, today and tomorrow, share equally in the ownership of these majestic places. This powerful idea transcends party lines and sets our country apart from the rest of the world. That is why we strongly oppose any proposal, current or future, that devalues or compromises the integrity of our national public lands.

Patagonia in particular staked out a leadership role in the issue even before Trump took office. The company launched a get-out-the-vote drive in advance of Election Day last year and it has not slowed down. Patagonia produced a video appeal to save Bear's Ears after Trumped signed the executive order, and in an interview with Huffington Post last month, the company's CEO Rose Marcario had this to say:
We have to fight like hell to keep every inch of public land..."

And the winner is...

The public comment period opened on May 13 and as of June 10 -- one month before the deadline -- the Interior Department already received more than 150,000 comments, a "great majority" of which favored preservation according to Grist.com. REI was personally responsible for tens of thousands of them.

That number swelled to approximately 2.5 million when the deadline closed on July 10, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Behind the numbers there is some bad news for the Trump Administration:

About 2.5 million Americans have submitted comments as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke prepares to announce which public lands would lose protections. A large sampling analyzed by the Center for Western Priorities found just 1% of the commenters wrote to express support for the Trump plan.

Trump appears set to win the land preservation battle on behalf of the fossil fuel industry and other commercial stakeholders, but REI, Patagonia and companies like them have already won hearts and minds.

In the end, that may prove to be a far more powerful victory.

Image (screenshot): via REI.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey