What Wisconsin Means For #OIBIZ

This is What Democracy Looks Like

I imagine that most of you have heard at least something about what’s been going on here in Wisconsin. I’ll spare you the details and the commentary. It’s a highly charged political situation, and we’re (trying hard to be) not about politics, here. If you’re interested in what’s really going on, friend me on Facebook for updates in real time. My posts have my own bias of course, but the national news isn’t covering what’s really happening.

I’ll just leave it at that.

Why I’m writing today: There’s something important happening here for us in #OIBIZ, too. We need to be very aware of how our industry can be caught up in similar challenges, very quickly. The situation here in Wisconsin could be repeated, and – I’m guessing – likely will be.

In my Outdoor Retailer show wrap-up a month ago, I referenced the four Outdoor Industry Association focus goals for 2011. Most important now is the second one:

Rising state deficits have a potential impact on recreational infrastructure, as state governments cut funds to parks and recreational services.

The explosive situation here in Wisconsin was precipitated by two opposing forces: The immovable object of a structural state budget deficit, and the unstoppable force of partisan politics. A similar situation in Florida resulted recently in a proposal to close 53 state parks, and – potentially – to sell them for development. Just a few days ago, after touring some of his state’s parks Florida’s Governor Rick Scott reversed himself on this decision.

That’s fortunate for all of us. I can tell you that Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker would not have reversed himself, and likely will not reverse himself, ever. BUT, it could STILL happen here in Wisconsin: Walker appointed a woman to head the state Department of Natural Resources who has long advocated dissolving the agency she is now charged with leading. A provision in the contested Budget Repair Bill (the whole point of the protests here in Madison) allows for the state to turn any land – including and specifically protected wetlands – into a TIF district, which would automatically make them available for development.

Once precedent has been set, we know now that dominoes will fall all across the country. And those dominoes are our state parks.

Whatever your politics, whatever you believe, if you are reading this you are in or close to the Outdoor Industry. State parks, wetlands, and publicly-owned natural areas are where our customers play. It’s where they camp, climb, ride, paddle, hunt, fish, and – not incidentally – use the stuff we sell. State parks represent the best, most accessible recreational land for the highest percentage of urban consumers. Urban consumers are already a significant customer base for us, and are also one of our areas of highest growth potential. There’s a real threat to our business here, and – whatever our politics – each of us is potentially contributing to the weight of this threat every time we buy or sell something.

Walker – who won his governorship in Wisconsin with barely 52% of the vote during a year of high voter anger and also low turnout at the polls – has behaved as if he has a mandate to do what he is doing here in Wisconsin. Even his closest allies have said that – at best – he is over-reaching with what he’s trying to accomplish. Others have noted that he acts as if he has marching orders, and – although I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist – it seems as if he might.

Walker’s campaign was heavily supported by Koch Industries. The Koch brothers, Charles and David, are billionaire political activists. They fund a number of political organizations that are strongly linked to the Tea Party. While they only donated tens of thousands of dollars directly to Walker for his campaign, the Koch funded organization Americans For Prosperity bought millions of dollars worth of political ads for Walker in what was the most expensive campaign for governor in Wisconsin state history. As evidenced by the now infamous prank phone call to Walker from a fake “David Koch,” the Koch brothers may have well gotten their money’s worth.

And here’s how it’s linked to those of us in #OIBIZ: Koch Industries owns Invista, the company that makes Cordura, Lycra, CoolMax, and Thermolite. To draw it full circle and back to a point: Each time we buy or sell anything that uses these branded materials, we are contributing to a fund that is being used to elect politicians who are making important and pressing decisions about state parks.

The jury is still out on what the result of this might mean for parks. If Walker’s and Florida Governor Scott’s first actions are any indication of their intent, this is troublesome, at best. We’ll call it “an area of concern.” But I can tell you that there’s a fine line between “concern” and “chaos.” The transition between the two happens really quickly, as we’ve experienced here in Madison.

It’s like the drop of a bomb, honestly.

What to do? I don’t know. I did a lot of research just to be sure that – maybe, somewhere – we here at PEMBA don’t somehow work for Koch Industries. It’s an indicator of how tangled things are that – at this point – I’m still not sure that at some level way higher up that maybe we do.

When things are that complicated, there are few easy answers. Personally, I am glad that the bulk of our vendors have already mostly stepped away from the branded materials that are owned by Koch Industries. It makes some things easier, for us.

But we as an industry, we here in #OIBIZ, are left with a large question:

What do we do when some of our largest material suppliers are behind such a significant threat to our parks?

I don’t have an answer for this question. I’m open to suggestion.

The clock is ticking.

And – by what I’ve seen here in Wisconsin these past few weeks – it’s strapped to a bomb.

2 Responses to What Wisconsin Means For #OIBIZ

  1. I heard in conversation recently that we in the #oibiz don’t have unions or representation. I’ve thought about this a lot recently, and my response is “What is the OIA and our regional rep organizations for, then?”

    The OIA has a responsibility to highlight instances where a supplier/vendor/manufacturer is tied to or part of an organization that negatively affects the places we recreate. Highlight, then boycott. I’ll quote the great Walter Sobchak “This is about drawing a line in the sand, Dude.”

    One of the refuges I take in working with this industry is that there is an apparent moral code, a set of rules or tenets that we adhere to because we agree with the principles, at the very least as it concerns the environment we live in. We recently saw how a dealer can hold to this ethos as Bass Pro Shops declined to utilize a rather generous and certainly profitable TIF created on wetland area in Green Bay. There is no shortage of vendors who have environmental statements as part of their company philosophy.

    We need to look at these, take them seriously, and hold others fully accountable. It’s our responsibility to do so, to maintain the spaces and places we enjoy as well as depend on for our career survival.

  2. Thanks, Brad. I really appreciate reading this. I wish there was a list of outdoor companies linked to the Koch brothers, etc…

    In Minnesota, we face something slightly different, but just as insidious as the elimination of public spaces. The yearning for jobs is helping push through a bunch of mines near the Boundary Waters that will, when sulfite mining’s track record repeats itself, pollute the BWCA and decimate lots of public land.

    At what point do all the outdoor recreation enthusiasts, including hunters, paddlers, anglers, hikers, campers and bikers, et al., stand up against this?