Cabela’s and Orvis, Afterthoughts

By Beacon Staff

After reading more than 300 comments from readers and having a few heated phone calls concerning my last two columns on NewWest.Net about Cabela’s Trophy Properties, the giant retailer’s land marketing division, and a similar endeavor by Orvis, plus a long chat with Cabela’s senior vice president Mike Callahan, a few things have become quite clear.

Now, for example, I know exactly how it feels to be a little fireplug surrounded by a pack of big dogs.

In this column, I’ll try to summarize some of the best insight coming out of all those comments.

First, for the benefit of many people reading the wild Bill column for the first time, it’s commentary, not news. I always hope some readers will agree with me, but I also know some won’t.

Have I changed my mind? No, I still wish Orvis and Cabela’s (and for that matter, Mossy Oak, Realtree Camo, and probably others) wouldn’t use their brand power to make recreational property transactions happen faster and more easily. And I still believe all these companies risk damage to their brands by doing it.

Orvis and Cabela’s have made it clear to me that they disagree, so don’t expect either company to get out of the land sales biz anytime soon. The company decision-makers have what’s called “P&L responsibility,” and they think they can make serious money brokering land deals. I’m afraid they’re right.

Cabela’s, in particular, has already become quite successful and making it easier for their affiliated brokers to find well-healed buyers for high-priced property, and I guess that’s the part of what scares me. The involvement of the golden brands, trusted by most anglers and hunters, accelerates the entire land sales process.

I was wrong about at least one point. I said real estate is risky business for these companies because they can’t control the buyer. Well, I still think it’s risky, but alas, they can control the buyer, but will they? They can only accept listings from sellers who require continuance of public access programs, conservation easements and setbacks, and prohibit subdivision. Such stipulations would make their involvement a big improvement over the current, uncontrolled situation, but it also flies in the face of how the real estate industry works. A lot of us will remain doubters until we see proof that the companies actually refuse listings without protective covenants or easements.

Even then, it’s still risky. By being a promoter and facilitator of land sales, the companies become an integral part of speeding up the sweeping cultural change from traditionally free access to private land to a mix of less-palatable situations varying from total closures, access only for friends and customers of high-net-worth owners, and various fee-based options. All of these options are foreign to those of us who grew up in the West, and yes, we’re having a hard time adjusting to the pay-or-stay-home future hunters face.

We hunters, most of us at least, now have a choice of crowding onto public land or paying to hunt–or hanging up the guns in favor of the fishing rods, which is pretty much what I’ve done. Cabela’s, Orvis and the other companies are now facilitating this painful transformation and profiting from it.

We have had our say, and Orvis and Cabela’s definitely heard us. Now, the onus is now on these companies to prove to us that land sales can truly be “no net loss” in public access or quality of wildlife habitat as they claim.

We certainly don’t have much evidence that no-net-loss transactions will happen. But we do have a lot of evidence of rich people buying big ranches and closing or restricting access to both private and public lands.

Nonetheless, I believe most of us are willing to sit back and let the companies make the right moves, but as a board member of the Montana Wildlife Federation told me, “If they don’t come through, it won’t take much to turn up the heater again.”

I’ll translate that. If the companies come in; say the right things; people believe them; then, the companies go back to business as usual, well, then there will be hell to pay and more controversy, guaranteed.

For those readers who misinterpreted my intent, I wrote these columns because I like Cabela’s and Orvis, not because I don’t like them. I have a lot of gear from both companies, and I don’t want to see them go down, their brands tarnished. Although many comments confirmed my fears that the companies have underestimated the problem, they obviously don’t share my concern. Like I said, I guess that’s why they make the big bucks and have corporate jets and I don’t, right?

Orvis and Cabela’s have solid records in conservation, and they have smooth-talking brass to emphasize their records. But I can’t say the same for the real estate brokers they have under contract or in their employ.

I hope you noticed that James Hathaway of Orvis gave us an excellent response, and I had several chats with him offline that mirrored his advanced communication skills that left no doubt he works for a conservation-minded company. Witness his unique title–Communications & Conservation Manager. On the other hand, his main real estate guy, John Watson, of Orvis/Cushman & Wakefield, called me up to tell me I was unprofessional and irresponsible and then hung up, a response hardly in line with the classy image Orvis cherishes.

Cabela’s, too, had a good response, albeit a little slow in coming. They flew their corporate jet to Helena with the sole purpose of smoothing feathers, meet with their detractors from the Montana Wildlife Federation (MWF) and Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and even taking time to chat with Wild Bill. I have to say that interview went better than I thought it would. Cabela’s man in charge of government relations was a little defensive, perhaps, but he admitted the company could have done things better, assuring us that the company would do better going forward. No name calling or blaming the press for the problems.

Cabela’s brokers are a different story. All you need to do is read through the comments to see what I mean by that. Somewhere along this thread, somebody unleashed Cabela’s entire real estate army on the MWF and yours truly, and they had the-best-defense-is-a-good-offense game plan. A few brokers were little more than snipers, and will be dismissed, but many had some good ideas and definitely share some of Cabela’s goals and ethics. But the blatant brown-nosing did get a bit embarrassing.

I suppose all the comments from Cabela’s brokers could have been a directive, but I also wonder if sudden interest in NewWest.Net wasn’t partially fueled by a growing fear among the brokers that Cabela’s might actually agree with the MWF and get out of the trophy property business. Cabela’s Trophy Properties has obviously worked out well financially for a lot of land brokers.

Interestingly, I haven’t seen a single attaboy comment from a broker on Monday’s posting where Mike Callahan says he’ll pull license agreements if brokers don’t adhere to company principles promoting conservation and public access. And I happen to know they saw his comments because I put it in the comment sections, and it went to all previous commenters.

Anyway, here’s where we are. The companies are talking a good game, but it’s still just talk. When and if more firm policies go into place, I think we have an excellent chance to chock this up as a comeback victory for hunters and anglers.

And here’s one point we can agree on. It was healthy for all of us to have this forum to exchange our feelings on an all-important subject. Whatever happens, I feel it will be better and more carefully done because of this discussion.

Footnote: To make it easier for readers to read related articles, I put together The Cabela’s Chronology.