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The US Outdoor Recreation Economy Is Bigger Than Both Mining and Agriculture, According to Report

Sustainability Outdoor National Parks
by Tim Wenger Nov 12, 2020

No matter the subject, 788 billion is a massive number. Put that number into US dollars and you have the total economic output of outdoor recreation in the United States — in 2019 alone. That’s according to the third annual report on the subject from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which released its findings on November 10. The report’s biggest takeaway is this: The US spent a lot of time outside in 2019, and this had a major impact on economic growth.

Nationwide, outdoor recreation accounted for 2.1 percent of total economic output, the report found. But in areas that depend on outdoor recreation tourism, that number is even higher. Florida, Maine, Montana, and Wyoming each saw outdoor recreation drive more than four percent of their economic output. Western states including Idaho, Utah, and Colorado, where much of the state is open space protected by federal or state governments, saw that number at three percent or higher. The Colorado Sun’s reporting on the findings found that the outdoor recreation industry is now bigger than mining and bigger than agriculture.

What’s included in the report

The report puts outdoor recreation into three categories: conventional activities like boating, hiking, camping, and hunting; “other core activities” like gardening and outdoor events; and “supporting activities” such as lodging and dining. Also tabulated into the numbers were construction as it relates to supporting outdoor recreation.

Boating and related water-based recreation like fishing and water skiing accounted for the biggest share of economic output, at $23.6 billion. RVing was second, and in several mountainous states like Colorado, Vermont, and Utah, snow sports topped the charts.

What this means for travel and the economy

Across the United States and particularly in the west, outdoor recreation continues to drive economic growth in places formerly dependent on the extraction industry. Farmington, NM, is a prime example of this, as the city launched an initiative to rethink its economy to embrace its vast open spaces and public lands for the people to use, rather than solely for oil and gas development. The result has been the rekindling of a dying downtown and a flock of new arrivals to the city. Other towns including Fruita, CO, and Vernal, Utah, are experiencing the same thing.

Adding to this, under a new administration, the Bureau of Land Management can go back to protecting and optimizing our country’s public lands rather than prioritizing the interests of the extraction industry. This will help drive the economic output of the recreation industry higher and further the cause for conservation.

Additionally, growth in the outdoor sector is slowly becoming more inclusive thanks to BIPOC-led initiatives like the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge. This factor also plays into the increasing economic output of outdoor recreation, as previously marginalized communities continue to break down societal barriers to the outdoors. Recent Matador reporting highlights growing communities of BIPOC anglers and how Indigenous communities are bolstering identity in outdoor spaces that long belonged to them.

All of this adds up to broader economic growth fueled by a passion for exploring and preserving the outdoors rather than exploiting and extracting from it. Numbers from 2020 and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the outdoor industry won’t be finalized until 2021, but national parks across the country are reporting record numbers as travelers seek socially distant means of exploration. And we know that our economy, and in particular small businesses that depend on travelers and outdoor recreation to survive, is going to need a big boost.

So get out there, because as Henry David Thoreau famously said in Walden, “We can never have enough of nature.”

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