If Fitz Cahall had a motto, it might be “life as a creative opportunity.” The one-time hyphenated dirtbag (climbing guide-photoshoot manager-journalist) seems to have a knack for seizing the moment. Take, for example, when the print magazines he was writing for were flaming out and the 2008 downturn hit home. The seemingly disparate skill sets that he had acquired on his scrappy career juggle queued him up perfectly for the next adventure: co-founding a creative brand agency for the outdoor industry. Ten years on, Duct Tape Then Beer is the creative force behind the wildly popular “Dirtbag Diaries,” a podcast that’s racked up more than nine million downloads. Their two dozen films, including “Road from Karakol,” charm audiences with a fierce brand of storytelling that infuses all of DTTB’s work, aiming to strengthen connections to the natural world.
Lara Whitley caught up with him after the 5Point Film Festival, where his team was premiering “The Crash” and tackling his latest creative opportunity: connecting the dots between public lands and energy. Following are excerpts from their conversation.
Would you share the origin story of Duct Tape Then Beer, including your advocacy work for public lands? Was this an evolution or was it part of your MO from the git-go?
I have always worked in the outdoors: producing photoshoots, writing for magazines, then online. My wife [DTTB co-founder and CEO Becca Cahall] ran big field studies in forests of the Pacific Northwest. We always had the strong connection to the land, not just to the recreation side, but it was something we thought about on an intellectual basis.
When my wife lost her job during the downturn of 2008, we had to make the things we’ve now become known for: podcasts, films, etc. But we always had the eye that as creatives we had a responsibility to help gather our community. For us, it’s about protecting the landscapes and wild places. As the business developed, we had a little more freedom to start working on issues like these.
When and how did you arrive at the connection between public lands and renewable energy? Was there a specific “Aha!” moment, or a particular person, project or client that made this apparent?
Four years ago, Outdoor Alliance came to us with an interesting wonky policy thing. What they were talking about was the public land heist, [a movement to transfer public lands to state governments where they are likely to be immediately threatened by development or outright sale.] If the states can sell land, it meant that what was in the hands of private people could be sold, including [the rights to] energy extraction. We were in a position to help people understand this issue for the first time.
We thought: Hey, the public lands issue is a byproduct of what’s happening in our energy. If we were moving away from fossil fuels, we’d be moving away from pressures on our public lands. A lot of these issues are about energy: what kind of energy we consume and where we consume it, places like the Thompson Divide, Bears Ears, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
What did you do next? Has this shifted the approach to your work and, if so, how?
At our company, we have a stake in what happens in our public lands; we’re in the outdoor industry. Personally, they’ve given me so much metaphorical extraction. When you come back to a realization like that, there is a responsibility.
We knew we loved the American West. Most of the work we do is fairly close to our home in Seattle. This decision played to our strengths and [flying all over the world] wasn’t real and is not totally sustainable. The key is you do something with intention, rather than just letting it fly.
Progress is more important than perfection. Yah, you’re going to make some mistakes. But if you do that long enough, five years later you have something that looks pretty good. Break that down into bite-sized steps. If you try to do it all at once, it’s pretty overwhelming.
Are there any projects you’re working on now that tell this story?
Our work has a mind toward the elections in the fall. Figuring out how to engage the outdoor community, the young community. This is one of those pivotal moments when people don’t need to be inspired, they just need a little direction. Getting out the vote is one of the roles we have to play.
What would you tell a business owner who wants to get more involved?
There are two big things happening. There’s how do we participate in our community, even the broader national community? And how do we participate in our own actions? You have to find the the easy thing for you. Maybe that’s switching to solar, maybe that’s finding ways to save energy, maybe that’s getting involved politically. And then go for the things that are more difficult.
You look at the big mountain before you look at the small mountain. Sometimes it’s better to start with the small mountain and work up to the big mountain.