Accessible public lands key to Methow Valley – and Northwest – economy

(The following op-ed was authored by Tom Campion and originally published in The Methow Valley News on May 27, 2016.)

For over 25 years, my company, Zumiez, has brought managers from all over the country to the Methow Valley for an annual training event. Zumiez is a 38-year-old action sports lifestyle retailer based in Seattle. We’ve got stores in four countries and every state in the United States.

This year’s event had over 700 Zumiez managers spending three days in the Methow, getting a sense of what makes this place so special — mountain views, a world-class trail system, open undeveloped farmland, and easy access to public lands for recreation. The Methow, long ago, became part of the Zumiez culture and our strategy for growth.

The tremendous character of the Methow, and the quality of life that makes this valley so attractive, is of course dependent on its proximity to public land. Increasingly we’re coming to understand and appreciate the value of public land. And I’m not just talking outdoor recreation being a big business — $646 billion a year to the U.S. economy. I’m also talking about how top companies headquartered in the Pacific Northwest like Amazon, Microsoft, and Costco can recruit top talent because of the “Mount Rainier factor” — their employees want easy access to public lands and parks.

The economic importance of proximity to public lands was also confirmed in the last recession, when job creation and growth in Western states with significant public and protected lands outpaced the rest of the country.

I had my first wilderness journey in 1961, when I strapped on a backpack and, along with my church group, stepped into the wilderness of Olympic National Park. It was the summer between eighth and ninth grades, and I was a blue-collar kid growing up in the suburbs south of Seattle. We wandered and explored the magnificent alpine meadows and ancient forests for 10 days. It was an incredible experience for me, and cemented my interest in living near the parks and public lands of the Cascades and Olympics. Seventeen years later I co-founded Zumiez and headquartered the company in Washington.

America’s values and traditions tied to protection and access to public lands are part of what fueled the growth of my business. Surfers catch their waves on public beaches. The explosive growth of skateboarding occurred when municipalities began constructing public skate parks across the United States. And nearly 60 percent of all downhill ski and snowboard runs are found at 122 resorts on public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

We need to do a better job of recognizing the value of public lands, and speaking up about their importance to our communities. I’ve been encouraged by the Methow community’s response to the proposed copper mine on Flagg Mountain. A Canadian mining company like Blue River Resources clearly doesn’t get what is already driving the Methow economy — recreation, agriculture, tourism — all of which are incompatible with industrial-scale mining. It has been great to see well over 100 local business owners lead the charge against the Flagg Mountain mine, noting it is just the wrong place for a mine.

This response from Methow businesses is a perfect demonstration of how communities can appreciate and fight for the real value of public lands. I hope they are successful, and that Zumiez managers get the same Methow experience next year.

Tom Campion is founder and chairman of Zumiez. He and his wife, Sonya, own a home in the Methow Valley.