Friday, February 17, 2017

The Economic Power of Outdoor Recreation

It’s an unfortunate truth that outdoor recreation is a widely undervalued part of our economy. It is an industry worth 21.6 billion dollars in Washington alone, yet it is so often given only a grudging back seat in the estimation of politicians. Parks go unfunded, extractive industries are allowed to dominate vast swaths of public land, and in general we give little thought to an economic force as significant as the aerospace or tech industries. Think what could be accomplished if public lands and recreation were given the consideration that they deserve.

When you cut a forest it needs decades to reach a point where it may be harvested, and many centuries if it is to reach its maximum rate of growth. When you extract minerals from a mountain, or suck oil from the ground, that’s it. That resource is gone forever (or as close to forever as makes no difference). Outdoor recreation is unique among industries in that it does not use up the resource it is based upon. A trail may be hiked by dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people one day, and it will still be there the next day! As long as land is well managed and treated with respect and care by visitors it will remain there for us to enjoy and profit from indefinitely. The only limiting factor is the visitor capacity of our wildlands.

In a 2015 study done by Earth Economics on behalf of the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office, it was found that outdoor recreation is worth $21.6 billion annually, created nearly 200,000 jobs, and is one of the largest markets in the state for moving income from wealthy urban areas to struggling rural areas. Additionally, 27% of that $21.6 billion dollars comes from out of state visitors, thus representing billions of dollars in new money coming into circulation in the state.

Again, that was in 2015; more recent data shows the industry to have grown spectacularly since then. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, recreation now generates 22.5 billion dollars per year and directly creates 226,600 jobs.

In California the numbers are truly spectacular - $85.4 billion per year and 732,100 jobs. Even in Iowa, which one might think of as one big farm, the outdoor recreation industry is still worth  $6.1 billion. In Wyoming, a state with a bit less than 600,000 people residing there, the outdoor industry supports 50,400 jobs. Not a single state in the nation makes less than a billion dollars off of recreation, and nationwide recreation generates a staggering $646 billion per year and supports 6.1 million direct jobs!

The value of outdoor recreation and the importance of the jobs it creates cannot be underestimated. In fact, it could be argued that this recreation economy exceeds the simple values demonstrated so far. When calculating importance, the real value of a certain economy must take into account not just how much it is worth at the moment, how many jobs it creates, and what potential there is for growth. Other, far less easily quantifiable ideas must be considered. In the case of outdoor recreation, here are a few such factors to think about.

  1. Sustainability

Most human activities require the extraction of natural resources - even if the resource in question is replenished in some way, materials have still been taken from somewhere. Recreation is one of the few exceptions. As long as we treat it well and do not abuse or overuse it, wild lands and the trails that run through them will last forever, or as close to forever as makes no difference. This sustainability leads us to the next benefit of recreation as an economic force.

    2. Longevity

Human history, and in particular the history of the American west, has been a litany of booms and resulting busts. A rush of miners swarms a gold mine, a massive, thriving town is built, then suddenly the mine is empty and before long the town is inhabited only by ghosts. The same happened with the logging of old growth forests, the decimation of the salmon runs, the buffalo, fur bearing animals - quick money isn’t good money. Lack of planning and the over exploitation of our limited natural resources continues to cause chaos in America. We need to learn to think not only of our own wealth, but that of our children, and their children, and for the good of many generations more. A mine might make a few people wealthy and sustain a town for a couple of decades, but a hiking trail will provide steady commerce for untold centuries to come.

   3. Benefits to environment and human health

Unlike industries that thrive upon environmental degradation, outdoor recreation is powered by restoring and protecting the environment. The healthier the environment the better the recreation economy. Healthy environments clean our air and water, and sequester CO2, making us healthier, and helping to fight climate change.

Unfortunately, it appears that not only have a number of politicians failed to realize, or perhaps have chosen to ignore, the incredible economic impact and potential for growth in the outdoor recreation industry. Politicians such as the villainous representative from Utah, Jason Chaffetz who is even now trying to push through legislation that would weaken the environmental protections and agencies that enable the success of the outdoor recreation industry. Even worse, he and others in our government want to sell and give away public land entirely!

In the past the outdoor recreation industry has lacked the political impact of similarly sized industries, and many of the people who participate in outdoor recreation have also remained uninvolved in politics. Thankfully this is beginning to change. The unprecedented attacks upon our environment and the integrity of our public lands have sparked a wave of awareness and activism that is sending a clear message to our government. These past few weeks a historic movement among outdoor retailers took place: in protest of Utah politicians war on public lands Patagonia pulled out of the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City, and other companies such as Arc’Teryx and Peak Design quickly followed suit, eventually leading to the organizers of the event declaring that the show would in future not be held in Utah. Citizens of Utah have also taken note of their representatives policies, and they aren’t happy. At a recent town hall hosted by Chaffetz so many people showed up to protest that they couldn’t fit in the high school auditorium!

We must capture this momentum, and build a movement in the outdoor recreation industry and among those that take such great pleasure in exploring our public lands. Politicians must learn to consider outdoor recreation as the huge economic force that it is, and begin giving the environment and public lands the respect and funding they deserve.