Can Keen Save America's Endangered Wilderness with a Single RV?

Five major national wilderness areas—including Eastern Oregon's Wild Owyhee Canyonlands—are at risk. One Portland shoe company wants to do something about it.

By Peter Holmstrom September 21, 2015 Published in the October 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

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The Owyhee Canyonlands in Southeastern Oregon, which Keen Footwear hopes the president will declare a National Monument.

Image: Tyson Fisher

True fact: The stretch of Eastern Oregon known as the Owyhee Canyonlands is currently the largest untouched conservation opportunity in the Lower 48. The area’s 2.5 million acres encapsulate hundreds of miles of scenic rivers, red rock canyons, and lengthy lava-cave networks. It’s about  the size of Yellowstone, with only two paved roads.

As it stands now, the area remains largely unprotected. And with mining interests clawing at the Owyhee’s undefined borders, its days as a pristine redoubt may be numbered. Enter a 12-year-old Portland shoe company with a plan.

This summer, Keen Footwear launched a campaign advocating for the creation of five new national monuments, driving a retrofitted ’70s RV through the Owyhee Canyonlands, Nevada’s Gold Butte, Boulder-White Clouds in Idaho, the Mojave Trail of California, and the Birthplace of Rivers in West Virginia.

“Guaranteed, the resource extraction agencies are having a meeting about carving up this public land for their own purposes,” says Keen’s senior director, Kirk Richardson.

The brand’s “Live Monumental” campaign will try to exploit a political nuance in the US’s preservation laws. While the creation of a new national park or federal wilderness requires action by a Congress not currently favorable toward environmental causes, the Antiquities Act of 1906—a legacy of Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Era administration—gives the president unfettered authority to protect “landmarks” on federal land. Presidents tend to make these declarations near the end of their terms—Lyndon Johnson protected a piece of Arizona the very day he left office, and Bill Clinton created three monuments in his final year. With the clock winding down on Obama’s second term, Keen is making the final road-trip stop in DC this fall, dropping off 100,000 signatures at the White House door.

Major brands have a mixed history with altruism-infused self-promotion: Starbucks was mocked for its post-Ferguson “Race Together” campaign, but Microsoft was lauded for a 2011 pledge to give $25 million for college scholarships. If nothing else, Live Monumental stands out in another way. The idea stemmed from Richardson’s love of The Monkey Wrench Gang—Edward Abbey’s classic 1975 tale about a team of activist saboteurs, making it almost certainly the only corporate branding initiative this year inspired by an anarchistic eco-novel.

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