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A Powerful Link: Conservation and the $862B Outdoor Recreation Economy

Michael Reinemer
Outdoor America 2022 Issue 4
Paddlers on the Potomac - credit Michael Reinemer

America’s woods, waters and wildlife provide countless benefits – both for the natural world and for millions of people who enjoy hiking, hunting and other outdoor recreation.

A healthy environment also serves as the backbone for the outdoor recreation economy, recently estimated to account for $862 billion in gross output in the United States – a broad measure of economic activity generated in the sector. Outdoor recreation also supports 4.5 million jobs, providing income for many households and revenue for local economies across the United States.

The figures come from the U.S. Department of Commerce where the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) recently issued its report for 2021. The 2021 economic figures show large increases compared to 2020, which due to the pandemic was a good year for visits to the outdoors – but not for related businesses. The BEA definition of outdoor recreation ranges from hiking and boating to open-air concerts and tourism related to the outdoors.

Linking Commerce and Conservation

In recent decades, there has been increasing overlap between interests of conservation and commerce. And while some of the details are new, that link is not.

Today, the link between the outdoor recreation economy and conservation has never been stronger or more overt.

From the first days of the Izaak Walton League in 1922, many members have been involved in the business of the outdoors. And a large delegation of League leaders participated in the National Conference on Outdoor Recreation convened by President Coolidge in 1924 in Washington, DC. They made the point that conservation is essential.

From the outset, the League combined the pursuit of outdoor recreation with conservation advocacy. That tradition has continued throughout the League’s history.

During the 1950s fight to preserve the stunning landscapes of Echo Canyon on the Colorado-Utah border, the League argued that conserving natural treasures is a vital benefit to local economies. Conservation Director Joe Penfold lined up support for Echo Canyon from business interests who focused on the value of protecting that region for outdoor tourism and recreation revenue. (Read more about that campaign in Issue 2, 2022 of Outdoor America.)

That battle for conservation was won, and it has had lasting ramifications for protecting America’s national parks and public lands from development. In his book Symbol of Wilderness, Mark W.T. Harvey credited the Izaak Walton League with the Echo Park victory, writing that sportsmen, rather than park or wilderness advocates, provided heft to the conservation argument, and “that fundamental fact had great bearing on the success of the campaign in Congress.”

Today, the link between the outdoor recreation economy and conservation has never been stronger or more overt. Whether defending the Pittman-Robertson Act law that applies shooting sports tax funds to conservation of wildlife habitat, or sports-equipment manufacturers weighing in politically to protect public lands, the two interests are intimately connected now.

Outdoor Retailer exhibition - credit Scott MartinOutdoor Retailer bills itself as the world's leading business-to-business outdoor sports exhibition, holding winter and summer shows in Utah.

The Outdoor Industry Lobby

For three decades now, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) has, in their words, worked to unite and serve “manufacturers, suppliers, sales representatives, and retailer members through its focus on trade and recreation policy, sustainable business innovation, and outdoor participation.” Their agenda includes advocacy that urges national and local policy action to reverse the climate crisis, conserve 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters and enable greater access to outdoor activities for children and families from all backgrounds.

Many of the OIA member companies put their money where their mouth is. When elected officials in Utah backed large reductions in protected federal lands in 2017, many manufacturers of outdoor gear protested. As a result, Outdoor Retailer, the nation’s largest outdoor products trade show, moved from Salt Lake City to Denver.

Now the show is moving back to Salt Lake City after five years. But dozens of companies still refuse to return, citing Utah officials’ continued efforts to undo federal protection for Bears Ears National Monument and other federal lands in the state. The protesting companies include REI, Timberland, Vibram, The North Face, KEEN Footwear, Kelty and LifeStraw, among others.

In terms of policy positions, the outdoor industry is not monolithic. But a proposed bill in Congress in 2022 (H.R. 8167) to gut the Pittman-Robertson Act was opposed by the National Rifle Association, the National Shooting Sports Association, the Izaak Walton League, the National Wildlife Federation, Ducks Unlimited and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, among other groups. The Pittman-Robertson Act was pushed through Congress with support from the League in 1937, and since then it has delivered billions of dollars to conservation efforts through a tax on firearms, ammunition and bows and arrows.

Recognition and Respect for the Sector

Recognition of the positive economic effects of outdoor recreation has gained respect in recent years. It was institutionalized in the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act, signed into law in 2016. That law directs the Secretary of Commerce, through the BEA, to conduct an assessment of the outdoor recreation economy, working with other federal departments.

States are also paying attention. Currently, 18 states have taken steps to foster outdoor recreation by creating new agencies and positions that work to attract new businesses and residents, support rural economic development and make sure that recreation is balanced with conservation goals.

As the map below shows, the BEA measures the dollar value of the outdoor recreation economy in every state. As a percentage of state’s gross domestic product, that value is as high as 4.4 percent in Montana, 3.3 percent in Florida and 3.1 percent in Indiana.

While the pandemic galvanized more visitation and time spent outdoors – some national parks were overwhelmed in 2020 – it also triggered a steep decline in spending.

But as the pandemic waned, there was “an explosion of new participants and sales as people flocked to the outdoors as a safe, healthy way to enjoy time with friends and loved ones,” notes Jessica Turner, president of Outdoor Recreation Roundtable – another group dedicated to promoting outdoor recreation. “Millions more Americans got outside than before the pandemic.”

Outdoor recreation as percentage of state GDP - credit U.S. BEAOutdoor recreation provides revenue and jobs in every state. Click for larger version.

Access to the Outdoors Is Not Universal

Not all Americans have easy access to national parks and other public lands or even green spaces in their communities. But there’s broad agreement that equitable access is a top priority. And conservation is viewed as part of the equation. “Expanding conservation programs and outdoor recreation opportunities is essential for communities of color who face barriers to getting to the outdoors,” says Shanna Edberg, conservation program director for Hispanic Access Foundation.

Edberg tells Outdoor America that in addition to geographic challenges, the barriers to access include lack of time, funds for outdoor gear and transportation. “By expanding programs to overcome existing barriers, we can help unlock nature’s benefits for all.”

To address those disparities, the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable and its member organizations established the Together Outdoors Coalition to create an environment where all people have access to welcoming outdoor recreation experiences. The Roundtable says about 100 outdoor recreation organizations across the public, private, and NGO sectors have joined in.

Entrepreneurial Diversity

During the past decade or so, many individuals and organizations have pushed for greater involvement in the outdoors for people of color. Because national parks in the U.S. were segregated for much of the 20th century, that exclusion presented a different and lasting barrier.

In 2009, Rue Mapp, who grew up connected to the outdoors in California, created Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit group that encourages more Black hikers to take to the outdoors. That network of volunteers has expanded to about 60 cities nationwide, and today her circle of outdoor buddies includes Oprah Winfrey and Steven Rinella, host of the popular television and podcast series, “MeatEater,” which chronicles Rinella’s hunting adventures.

And like Rinella, Mapp has moved into the retail sector of the outdoor industry by creating a for-profit called Outdoor Afro Inc., which makes outdoor gear. Mapp and REI are debuting a new marketing campaign called We Are Nature to launch that enterprise.

Jahmicah Dawes, founder and owner of Slim Pickens Outfitters in Stephenville, Texas, has been an entrepreneur in the outdoor recreation economy for about five years. He tells Outdoor America there have been very few role models for Black entrepreneurs in the industry, and one of his goals is to help “diversify the outdoors industry.” He describes that process as “trying to build a staircase, step by step.”

As the outdoor recreation economy expands, entrepreneurial diversity may follow, providing economic opportunities as well as chances to enjoy the great outdoors.

Top photo: Paddle boards and even flotation devices for dogs contribute to the $862 billion outdoor recreation economy. These paddlers are on the Potomac at Riverbend Park in Virginia. Credit: Michael Reinemer.