U.S. to study economic benefits of outdoor recreation

Association reports industry creates $646 billion annually in economic output

By Hilary Corrigan
The Bulletin

BEND, Ore. (AP) — Last month, U.S. Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell announced plans to study the impact that outdoor recreation has on the nation’s economy.

Jewell said in a speech then that “by producing credible data on the tangible economic benefits of public lands, we can help the public and members of Congress better understand the benefits of investing in them.”

To Teague Hatfield, owner of FootZone and OutsideIN in Bend, the benefits are obvious.

“It’s shocking that there needs to be a study” to show the economic benefits of outdoor recreation, Hatfield said.

But often, he noted, debates about public lands portray decisions like preserving land as being beneficial simply for the sake of preserving land.

“As though there’s not a human element to it,” Hatfield said of such a decision, pointing to the need for runners and mountain bikers to have such preserved places to perform those outdoor activities — otherwise, they’re just running and biking around town.

Studies like the one planned by the Interior Department offer “a way to quantify some of the value in public lands,” he said.

Area groups and outdoor enthusiasts expect such numbers to bolster the data they have seen from separate trade group and government studies showing the economic boost that outdoor recreation offers — but that has not yet gotten such a comprehensive analysis.

The Interior Department will work with the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis to complete the study, which is still in the planning stages. The study aims to document the value of outdoor recreation to the nation’s economy and show data to inform decision-making and improve the management of public lands and waters. The process will include defining the term “outdoor recreation” and will look to capture statistics such as production, employment, compensation, “value added” and other economic factors that depend on the outdoor recreation economy.

A statement from the department and other government agencies involved in the effort noted the outdoor recreation sector supports more jobs than many American industries.

“Yet, the role that public lands and waters play in the American economy is underappreciated and not well understood,” the statement said. “Attaching a numerical value to recreation resources could help foster the appreciation for, and stewardship of, public lands and waters; help provide a more holistic understanding of local economies; and better support resilient economic strategies and business operations.”

So far, numbers have not been very firm on outdoor recreation and its associated products, according to Matt Sybrant, key industry coordinator at Economic Development for Central Oregon. But in recent years, the Colorado-based trade group Outdoor Industry Association has detailed the impact of outdoor recreation in the U.S. — coming out with numbers Sybrant said took people by surprise.

“The number was enormous, how large the industry is,” he said.

The Interior Department cited association numbers in its information about its planned study, noting the group’s findings that the outdoor recreation industry annually supported 6.1 million jobs and $646 billion in economic output in the U.S. Of those totals, outdoor recreation in Oregon generated $12.8 billion in consumer spending, 141,000 direct jobs, $4 billion in wages and $955 million in state and local tax revenue.

“That’s on par with tech and bioscience,” Sybrant said of such totals.

Sybrant called the association’s work a catalyst to having outdoor recreation recognized as an industry, a move that could bring more attention, legislation and spending to it. For instance, such attention could lead to greater workforce development or college-level programs related to outdoor recreation. (OSU-Cascades currently offers a program called Tourism and Outdoor Leadership.)

Sybrant said he was excited to hear the Interior Department and Bureau of Economic Analysis would conduct a large-scale study on economic impacts of outdoor recreation and wants to see the study measure both the recreation side — such as fishing guides — and the production and manufacturing side, such as companies that make paddles. That’s where research is needed to see how many of those companies exist, he said.

It’s also good to see unbiased research and research expertise directed at the topic, he said.

“The body of research is not very large” so far, he noted.

But data is building.

In March, a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that “quiet recreation” visitors to BLM lands in 11 Western states and Alaska in 2014 spent about $1.8 billion within 50 miles of the recreation sites. Quiet recreation refers to camping, hiking and other activities that don’t involve a lot of motor-vehicle use. For Oregon, that amounted to about $185 million in visitor spending for the year.

In February, Headwaters Economics analyzed how rural counties in the West with more or less federal and protected land compared economically. The group found that from 1970 to 2014, counties with the most federal lands had faster population, employment, personal income and per capita income growth than did counties with the lowest share of federal lands. And those with protected federal lands performed better in those categories than those with the least protected federal lands.

Parks studies

Every year, the National Park Service reports on the impact to the economy from visitors’ spending on their trips to parks. The Park Service last month said visitors contributed about $32 billion to the economy in 2015. Visitors to Crater Lake National Park spent about $52.2 million in communities near the park, with a cumulative benefit of about $71.2 million to the local economy. The $52.2 million represents direct spending, such as at restaurants, while the $71.2 million includes ripple effects, such as the produce that a restaurant buys.

Such data help the park understand how its visitors interact with local communities and how the park can better benefit local communities, said Crater Lake spokeswoman Jennifer Evans.

Dan Morse, conservation director at Oregon Natural Desert Association, expects the planned study to further quantify and clarify how much the outdoor recreation industry contributes to the economy. Morse noted the Bureau of Economic Analysis acts as the keeper of the country’s economic data and that a study from it is viewed as an authoritative and independent source of data, compared with a study from a trade association or related group.

Others also welcomed such detailed review.

“This is of particular value to an area like Central Oregon, which is essentially surrounded by public lands” that residents and visitors use, Central Oregon Visitors Association president and CEO Alana Hughson wrote in an email.

Kreg Lindberg, associate professor of tourism and outdoor leadership at OSU-Cascades, said he hopes such studies raise awareness about outdoor recreation’s contributions to people’s physical and mental health and to their social connections.

“The role goes beyond local economies,” Lindberg said, although he noted that one study may not be able to capture all elements. “I would hope that this study would recognize the full range of benefits.”

Decisions related to recreational opportunities should consider the various health benefits of providing those opportunities on public lands, he said.

“I’d love to see them cast a wide net,” Lindberg said of the planned study, adding that more numbers can help to provide perspective and show any tangible economic or health-related benefits. “It never hurts to have good numbers.”