Questions, not easy answers, about outdoor recreation

Outdoor recreation is big business.  Last year the Outdoor Recreation Industry reported that the outdoor recreation economy generates $887 billion in consumer spending annually, sustains 7.6 million American jobs and generates $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue and $59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue each year. 

According to data from the U.S Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, outdoor recreation is among the nation’s largest industries, accounting for two percent of the GDP. This is less than construction at 4.3 percent, but greater than agriculture (farming, forestry and fishing) at one percent and mining oil and gas extraction at 1.4 percent. Lest you think this outdoor economic engine is being driven by pedals and paddles, the largest contributor to recreation industry sector is motorized vehicles at $59.5 billion, boating and fishing at $38.2 billion and hunting/fishing/trapping at $15 billion.

This is not intended to discount the well-documented rise in outdoor activities such as birding, camping, hiking and biking, but to demonstrate perspective. Recreational vehicles and power boats are big-ticket items. Tents and hiking boots are not. Also, participation in activities such as hunting and fishing may be dwindling or stagnant, but they are well established within our society and include many passionate participants. Deer hunting alone generates more than a half billion in annual economic activity for Minnesota.

Looking at these numbers begs some obvious questions. The first is why do politicians pander to agricultural and extractive industry interests often at the expense of outdoor recreation? Of course, the simple answer is follow the money. The agricultural, mining and oil lobbies are entrenched in Washington. They have deep pockets and clear political goals. In contrast, the outdoor community spends more time bickering among themselves about the supposed “purity” of their chosen form of recreation than they do in defining, funding and accomplishing broader political objectives. Thus divided, the outdoor community is easily conquered by its opponents.

The second question is can outdoor recreation become an economic mainstay for a community or a region? Opponents to extractive industries sometimes tout outdoor recreation as a viable alternative for communities that are near desirable recreational amenities, such as national parks. Their case is that small businesses arise to service recreationists, which in turn fuels more local economic growth. Build a mountain bike trail and someone will build a bike shop, which will in turn lead to others opening B&Bs, bistros and craft breweries. Suddenly, you have a vibrant, self-sustaining local community.

While it sounds good, it sure is hard to find examples of places where this economic strategy has had long-term success. For starters, most outdoor recreation is seasonal, which means outdoor towns are “hoppin” during the season and roll up the sidewalks for the rest of the year. Such economies are highly dependent on large numbers of low-wage workers, which means there is an annual influx of foreign workers or students to fill those positions. Local workers who try to function in such an economy often hold several jobs just to get by.

Over time, the best outdoor recreation destinations price themselves out of normalcy. Housing becomes expensive or simply unavailable. Urban issues, such as congestion and sprawl, become commonplace. What was once a fine little town becomes the glitzy hellhole at the base of the mountain. For some, it’s still a great place to be, because they can afford to be there. But for the rest of us, we’ve lost what was once a great natural space, just as surely as if it was mined or developed in some other way.

This leads us to what may be the most troubling aspect of the outdoor recreation economy, one rarely acknowledged, much less addressed. The enjoyment of outdoor recreation is a function of having free time and disposable income. Sure, you can go for a walk in the woods for free, but most outdoor activities require specialized gear, even at the entry level. Folks wiser than this scribe have observed that one of the obstacles to recruiting new anglers and hunters is the cost of basic equipment. The days of going fishing with cane pole and leaky rowboat are long gone. 

For too many outdoor users, gear has become a measure of affluence and social status. Wearing a certain brand of jacket or casting a certain brand of fly rod conveys a message to your fellow recreators. For some, having the right stuff seems more important than possessing the skills and knowledge necessary to use it. The same can be said for going to the places where you choose to recreate. Name-dropping a famous ski area that you visited will always impress someone. You don’t have to mention that you never made it beyond the bunny hill.

Are the outdoors inaccessible to the many people who lack free and disposable income to enjoy all that the outdoor recreation economy has to offer? Certainly, just getting to the outdoors can be challenging for folks living in an urban environment. Conversely, there are lots of folks living in Minnesota lake country who never go fishing because they don’t own or have access to a boat. If they are balancing the demands of work and family, they may not even have the time to go fishing.

Folks who take outdoor recreation for granted may never consider that other people can face circumstances that prevent or make it very difficult for them to enjoy the outdoors. This doesn’t mean that outdoor recreation is a useless diversion or a guilty pleasure; although arguably, outdoor recreation now displays more social and economic stratification than it has in nearly a century. In the selfish interest of sustaining outdoor recreation and, more importantly, the Great Outdoors, removing barriers to participation should be a priority for the outdoor industry.

Finding common ground needs to be a priority, too. Corporations seem to find ways to agree upon a political agenda that benefits their industry as a whole. In contrast, the outdoor industry is a coat of many colors–motorized, nonmotorized, consumptive, nonconsumptive–that is politically dying death by a thousand cuts. The outdoor industry needs to reach a broad consensus to protect public lands and healthy natural ecosystems for the benefit of outdoor recreation. Doing so is simply good business. The public appreciates and values the Great Outdoors. No outdoor company is likely to lose customers by defending it.

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By Shawn Perich