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Is Outdoor Recreation An Economic Engine? New Report Says "Yes"

Wildlife watching is one of the forms of outdoor recreation included in the study. NPS photo by Jim Peaco, Yellowstone National Park.

At this point in the 2012 political season the economy is front and center in both campaigns, but all the rhetoric has included little mention of outdoor recreation as part of the equation. Two new reports suggest that's a major oversight. Can public lands, including national parks, benefit from the publicity?

According to The Outdoor Recreation Economy 2012, "more than 140 million Americans engage in outdoor activities each year, directly delivering $646 billion to the economy and supporting 6.1 million domestic jobs. In addition, the report credits spending on outdoor recreation with generating $39.9 billion in federal tax revenue and $39.7 billion in state/local tax revenue."

Those are impressive numbers, and a spokesperson for the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) says, "This new study reinforces what the outdoor industry has known for a long time — outdoor recreation is a larger and more critical sector of the American economy than most people realize."

"During a time when some American industries are struggling, we are seeing solid growth," said Will Manzer, CEO of Eastern Mountain Sports and chair of the OIA Board of Directors. "Since 2005, the outdoor recreation economy has grown approximately 5 percent annually. In fact, outdoor recreation supports a significant number of jobs, on par with — or, in some cases, more than — other sizeable American industries."

The Groups Behind The Studies

So, who sponsored these reports, and how might the findings apply to national parks? The Outdoor Recreation Economy 2012 was released by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) on June 20. A separate summary entitled The Outdoor Recreation Economy - A Snapshot of the Economic Impact of Outdoor Recreation in the West was released earlier in the month, and focuses on the report's findings that apply to the western states.

That summary was prepared by the Western Governors Association and a coalition of five outdoor industry groups: the Outdoor Industry Association, Motorcycle Industry Council, Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association, Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, and National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Some of those organizations would not normally be considered strong boosters of national parks, at least by many traditional park supporters. Nonetheless, competition for dollars needed to fund parks will continue to intensify in coming years, so it's worth taking a look at both studies to see if they offer any help on the political front in justifying expenditures on parks.

The introduction to the "Snapshot" report, signed by Washington Governor Christine O. Gregoire, notes that the effort "marks the first time the non-motorized and motorized recreation industries have joined forces to provide a complete picture of the economic impact and importance of outdoor recreation for the economy."

The Role of Public Lands in Outdoor Recreation

The importance of public lands is recognized in the full report: "Every year, hundreds of millions of visitors – young and old, after-work enthusiasts to international travelers, and from coast to coast – flock to America’s parks, forests and waters. From seashores and local parks to the wild backcountry, America’s public lands and waters are the very foundation of the national outdoor recreation system. Outdoor recreation can grow jobs and drive the economy if we manage and invest in parks, waters and trails as a system designed to sustain economic dividends for America."

"Outdoor Recreation" is obviously a very broad term, so how was it defined for purposes of these reports?

Included in "outdoor recreation activities" were: trail sports (trail running, unpaved day hiking, unpaved backpacking and rock climbing); biking; camping; snow sports; water sports (except sailing); fishing; hunting; wildlife watching; motorcycle riding and off-roading.


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Guided winter walks, such as this one in Rocky Mountain National Park, were among the activities included in the study. NPS photo.

While some of those pursuits are not major factors in most NPS areas, others such as the trail activities, camping, wildlife watching and boating and water sports are popular visitor activities in parks.

Not All "Outdoor" Activities Were Included

According to the Western Governors summary, study organizers took a rather conservative approach by excluding some specialized activities with significant local economic impacts. Special events, such as the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, USA Pro Cycling Challenge and Daytona Bike Week and Biketoberfest were not included in the study. (If you read the full OIA report, you will find references to some of those activities.)

Also excluded in the figures were spending by foreign tourists and "ripple effects created as manufacturers, retailers, service providers and other directly-benefitted businesses re-spend recreation dollars down the line." The report also omitted "any commercial or commuting activity, team and spectator sports (ball sports, track and field, swimming etc.), fitness and indoor recreational pursuits (weightlifting, yoga, cooking, electronic entertainment and gaming, reading, indoor hobbies etc.), and vacation and travel for purposes other than undertaking activities specifically in the pursuit of outdoor recreation."

Gear Plus Travel Equals Major Spending

Given those exclusions, what was included in the analysis? "The outdoor recreation economy thrives when Americans spend their hard-earned dollars in the pursuit of outdoor recreation. This spending occurs in two forms: the purchase of gear and vehicles, and dollars spent on trips and travel."

"Gear purchases include anything for outdoor recreation, such as outdoor apparel and footwear, bicycles, skis, fishing waders, tents, rifles, or backpacks. Vehicle purchases include vehicles and accessories used only for outdoor recreation, such as boats, motorcycles, RVs, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles."

"The outdoor recreation economy grows long after consumers purchase outdoor gear and vehicles. When people use their outdoor gear and vehicles, they spend money on day and overnight trips, and on travel-related expenses such as airfares, rental cars, lodging, campgrounds, restaurants, groceries, gasoline and souvenirs. They pay for river guides and outfitters, lift tickets and ski lessons, entrance fees, licenses and much more. Their spending supports innumerable small business owners. And they visit recreation areas that are cared for by land managers, park rangers, NGOs and volunteers."

Help for Pinched Government Budgets?

Stagnant or declining tax revenues at both the federal and state level are a significant challenge, and the study touts help from recreation for cash-strapped governments. Detractors will point to a vested interest by the study's sponsors, but even if those revenues are over-estimated by one third, the cited federal tax receipts from recreational activities for the western states alone ($15.4 billion) would still fund the entire 2013 budget requests for four agencies managing the bulk of public lands used for outdoor recreation: the National Park Service, Bureau of Land management, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U. S. Forest Service. Significant portions of those budgets, of course, are spent on activities that have nothing to do with recreation.

The OIA data may offer some useful perspective from one other standpoint. As reported by the Traveler earlier this year, the National Park Service issued a series of press releases this past Spring on the economic impact of that agency on the nation's economy: "All told, the system generated $31 billion and 258,000 jobs in 2010." Compare those numbers to the figures of $646 billion and 6.1 million domestic jobs cited by the OIA for the broader outdoor recreation industry in 2011, and the NPS figures seem rather conservative.

Western Governors Get on Board

Governor Gregoire's comments in the Western Governors Association summary of the study concludes with the following: "Outdoor recreation is critical to the West’s economy for more than just the opportunity to play in the great outdoors. It creates sustainable jobs and incomes for our friends and neighbors, especially in rural areas. It provides the opportunity to unplug from our busy lives, recharge our souls and live healthier lifestyles. The history and ethic of the West are tied to our lands and great outdoor places. Let’s build a world-class industry and recreational opportunities for Westerners and visitors to enjoy."

Can park supporters use studies such as this one to advantage in the political arena? That remains to be seen, but recognition by the Western Governors Association of the recreational value of public lands as opposed to strictly consumptive uses is a bit of welcome news.

You can read the full OIA report here, and the Western Governors Association summary is available at this link.  

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There have been millions of people trying to say this for years. Shock and awe...

Anonymous -

You're correct. However, the new element in these reports is the support of the Western Governors Association, which in the past hasn't shown much interest in public lands, other than as a source for cheap timber, grazing and minerals, including oil and gas.

Funding for parks and all public lands is a political issue; we'll see if this latest attempt to draw attention to the economic benefits from those lands translates into any political capital.

The exclusion of money spent by foreign tourists makes the Governors' report extremely conservative, at least with respect to National Parks. They may have bought their hiking boots in Germany, Japan, or Pakistan, but they're spending ridiculous amounts of money in and around the parks, not to mention the airport(s) they flew into, etc.

Agreed, Kirby. Here at Klondike Goldrush NHP in Alaska we have a large international visitation. The money they spend on meals in town doesn't get flown back to Tokyo, Frankfort, or Melbourne to be deposited. Same goes for their bike rentals, tour guide bus rides, and everything else. They tend to be quite generous with dropping off money at the library and fire department donation boxes. They all wear Alaska ball caps and sweatshirts.

Rick B. is right. There were many times during the two years that I worked in Grand Canyon that I was the only native speaker of English at, say, Mather Point, especially in the winter. Foreign visitors love our national park areas and spend their money visiting them.


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