By Kevin Rogers, GRIP6 Creative Director and Conservation Coordinator
We get asked all the time why a belt company cares about conservation. It’s an honest question. As the one who led us down this path, I’m going to do my best to strip away all the industry fluff and give you a decent answer.
There are many companies out there trying to do good these days. Some of it feels honest, some of it feels like carefully crafted marketing jargon, and some of it is nothing more than a ploy to sell product. When we decided to dip our toes into the proverbial Walden Pond, we wanted to make sure we were doing it for the right reasons.
Unlike many of the other companies out there, I can’t sit here and spin a lengthy tale about how our life-time of travel and outdoor adventures in far off places has exposed us to injustices in the natural world, leading us to this moment.
They didn’t, that’s not really who we are.
We can’t look you in the eye and tell you that we “live in the moment” and I’m pretty sure none of us have ever used the phrase #vanlife. These days, what vans we do own are of the “mini” variety, they are filled with kids, not backpacks, and climbing gear. However, when we were kids, things looked a little different.Megan & Kevin Rogers, David Burton and BJ Minson, Uinta Range, Utah. Photo Courtesy of Kevin Rogers
We all grew up a few miles from each other on the side of the tracks, where vacationing in far off places took a very distant second to putting food on the table. Fortunately, growing up in Utah, we had access to some of the West’s most impressive landscapes, and the price of admission was a tank of gas. Camping in the 80’s was pretty cheap, and the gas was even cheaper. Our families would often escape the summer heat on weekends and head for the Uinta mountains. For me especially, this is where it all began.
My dad was a backpacker and a climber, something I admired even at a young age, and while we had a well-worn camper strapped to a 1976 Ford F-250 Camper Special, my dad always seemed happiest away from the crowds.
In 1991, at 14, I was old enough to work at a Scout Camp in the Uinta’s. For a kid from the city, spending an entire summer up there was a revelation, so much so that I found a way to spend seven more seasons between 1991 and 2001. By today's standards, I had a reckless amount of freedom. On weekends I was pretty much left alone, something I took advantage of often. I climbed peaks, went backpacking, and fished, much of which I did on my own. In 1999, I was hired as the director of a new program called C.A.M.P. (Climbing and Alpine Mountaineering Program).I was very newly married, and my wife reluctantly agreed to come along. Our base of operations was a drafty one-room cabin built by the CCC in 1932. At 10,500 feet, the mornings were cold and the cabin did little to keep it out. We had no running water, plumbing, or electricity but none of that seemed to matter
Photo Courtesy of Kevin Rogers
That year I hired an 18-year old that had impressed me the year before. BJ Minson was a scrappy wrestler and possessed what I call “quiet confidence”, a trait that seems to be recessive in today’s society. BJ’s sidekick was his long-time friend, David Burton. Dave and BJ were of the kind that worked hard, played hard, and never complained when things got tough. Then there was Dave’s little brother Winslow. I never actually hired Winslow, it was more like a “buy one, get one free” sort of deal. Winslow seemed to be up there all season, even though I know he wasn’t. He was never short on antics, and he made us laugh more than anyone I can recall before or since. Besides, we needed him, he was the fourth Beatle. Together we led backpacking trips, taught climbing and mountaineering, all in one of the most amazing places in the country. I can’t speak for the other three, but that season had a big impact on me. I was a few years older and I knew these years wouldn’t last much longer, and they didn’t. I managed just one more season before college and career finally took precedence.
Photo Courtesy of Kevin Rogers
After that summer, my relationship with BJ, Dave, and Winslow became distant at best. We all went in different directions, Missouri, California, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, none of us had any idea that 17 years later, we’d all be back in Utah running GRIP6.
The first year at the company was more tuned to survival than philanthropy. BJ and Winslow worked long days on a shoestring budget to produce and sell thousands of belts to early customers. Dave offered financial support from a distance but was finishing his commitment to the Air Force in California. I came on board after that initial period to focus on our brand image and establish our wholesale sales division. Shortly after I came on, Dave finished up with the military and the band was back together.
Once we had established the product line and streamlined production, we began to discuss the development of the brand. What did it mean to us now, and what principles would guide GRIP6 for the next decade? American manufacturing, lifetime warranty, unrivaled customer service, these things came early and naturally and we had implemented them from the beginning. For some reason, I still felt like something was missing.
The first American notions of organized conservation began in the early 19th century after decades of unregulated natural resource extraction brought on by the industrial revolution. Most Americans were European immigrants and the impacts of depletion in their home countries still weighed heavily on the minds of future conservationists. People like John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and Gifford Pinchot took it upon themselves to organize like-minded people through legislation, literature, and education.
As manufacturers, our roots are closely tied to proponents of the industrial revolution than we were to the early conservationists, but those years we spent in the mountains formed a lasting impression, and those experiences require us to balance our approach to manufacturing against the impacts that it creates. In the end, we all agreed to do more than just compensate for our footprint, we wanted to hold ourselves to a higher standard.
I began to research everything I could on the topic. In time, three species rose to the top; Bison, Wild Salmon, and Pollinators (bees). These species are well known for being ‘keystone’ species. They act as indicators for the health of surrounding habitat, they provide a symbiotic link between themselves and numerous other species, they are all native to North America, and they are all capable of providing a healthy sustainable food source if managed correctly. Designing the original Conservation Series was the next step. Once that was completed, we all agreed that 10% of gross sales from all conservation products would be donated to three organizations dedicated to the health and habitat of these species.
Dr. Kyran Kunkel dives into Bison Rangeland management - Fourchette Bay, Montana (Photo: Kevin Rogers)
Our designs were complete, our production was ramping up, little did we know that navigating the corporate conservation landscape would be unjustifiably complex. It seemed intent on spooking away potential partners with extraneous red tape, even a partner who was looking to provide financial support. Once you break through the formalities, the upper echelons of the modern conservation movement are a noble cause surrounded by a minefield of big money, propaganda, and all the commensurate inefficiencies you would expect from large organizations whose budgets are donated rather than earned. This alone almost derailed the entire program from the very beginning.
We found wildly opposing opinions around every corner. People loved bison but cattle ranchers hated them, the logging and hydro industries hated salmon, but fishermen revered them. And while nearly everybody likes honey, most commercial farmers had no loyalty to bees because crops like corn, cotton, and wheat are self-pollinating. Each personality we interacted with was super-sized on both sides of every conversation, often with voices so big, they drowned out any sort of pragmatic approach in favor of a narrative that requires absolute loyalty to one camp or another. We had to be either all in, or all out, and we were neither. We didn’t fit in with the environmentalist crowd, we weren’t ranchers or farmers, and perhaps more importantly, we didn’t feel like we needed to be in order to have a voice and a desire to help.
We found ourselves in a position where a decision had to be made. Strangely, I thought back to Teddy Roosevelt, and one of the quotes that I had come to live by.
“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
Our selection wasn’t great but we picked the best three conservation partners we could find and pushed forward. Of those initial three, only one remains. Over the years we have continued to search for organizations that work with the industries who oppose them, rather than against them. Today those organizations are as follows.
Amy Sibul from Hollow Tree Honey explains the mysteries of Utah's native bee population. (Photo: Kevin Rogers)
The Wild Salmon Center
Formed in 1992, The WSC is well known for working with the logging companies that call the Pacific Northwest home. While their mission is geared more toward restoration than preservation, they have been successful in establishing riparian corridors on existing salmon rivers and restoring native salmon habitat on numerous river systems. They currently have work going on in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, Canada, and Russia.
The Hollow Tree Honey Foundation
The youngest of the three, the Hollow Tree Honey Foundation, was created by a partnership between Hollow Tree Honey Co., GRIP6, and professors from the University of Utah. Together, we have organized free native bee box workshops for hundreds of individuals who have crafted their own native bee box, providing safe haven for the hundreds of species of bees that do not produce honey. The foundation has begun laying the groundwork and funding framework for seed grants that will provide region-specific wildflower seeds to sustain bee populations in areas of need.
The Savory Institute
Our newest partner, The Savory Institute works with bison ranchers and cattle ranchers alike with the goal of establishing holistic grassland management as an effective tool that utilizes native grass species and uses less water. Native grasses also provide habitat for a wider range of animals, create pollinator-friendly landscapes, and prevent soil erosion. The Savory institute also provides a network of land to market hubs designed specifically to help promote the products derived from sustainable ranches.
To date, GRIP6 has donated over $200,000 to organizations that are working to support the health and habitat of these keystone species. That number has never been disclosed until today. In May 2020, we are releasing a re-designed conservation line that was displayed at the Outdoor Retailer Show in January. In 2021, we will be selecting three more species to add to our line of conservation products, continuing our commitment to making the world a better place.
We may not be perfect in our approach, but we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished. Each summer, whenever the opportunity presents itself, we try to make our way back up to the Uintas. It’s hard to describe the way it feels to go back there. These days, we take our kids in hopes of giving them a taste of the places that helped shape who we are. I’m always amazed that after 35 years, the novelty has yet to wear off. I am just as captivated today as I was as a kid. That feeling, and our desire to preserve it for future generations, is why we do what we do. It happens every day in wild places all over America and we want to do our part to not only keep it that way but to make those opportunities more readily available.