A new report shows Americans spend $887 billion a year on outdoor recreation, fueling an industry that is testing its newfound political clout in an emerging battle over pubic lands.
The third-ever impact report by the Boulder-based Outdoor Industry Association being released Tuesday affirms the industry's ascent to economic powerhouse, a climb that mirrors its recent efforts to evolve into a political force. That nascent political emergence, bolstered by a nearly trillion-dollar economic impact, arrives as the outdoor industry faces a shifting political landscape involving the public lands that anchor recreation.
With the news that the outdoor economy — defined by bike, snow, trail and water sports as well as camping, fishing, hunting, motorcycling, off-roading and wildlife viewing — supports more than 7.6 million jobs and pays $124.5 billion in federal, state and local taxes, the outdoor industry right now is circling its wagons in Washington D.C., hoping to champion the role of outdoor play in not just the health of Americans but the country's economy.
Source: Outdoor Industry Association
The report arrives a day before President Donald Trump is expected to order a review of all national monument designations over the last two decades, asking the Interior Department to examine whether the scope of the monument designations follows the intent of the Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to create such protections.
“There is a sense of urgency around keeping public lands public and making sure members of Congress preserve what is one of America's greatest heritages,” said Amy Roberts, the Outdoor Industry Association's executive director on the day before her group's 25th annual Capitol Summit, which sees 130 outdoor industry leaders lobbying lawmakers to support recreation's use of Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park land. “We definitely see public lands as the infrastructure of the industry the same way the highway system services transportation.”
The summit typically attracts about 75 recreation leaders. The surge in attendance this year, Roberts said, is directly tied to concerns about public lands and calls for the federal government to relinquish swaths of federally controlled lands to states.
The most recent example of the outdoor industry flexing its economically bolstered political clout is in Utah, where the Outdoor Industry Association's venerable Outdoor Retailer trade shows recently divorced its longtime home in Salt Lake City, citing the state's public lands positions.
Trump's review signals support for Utah leaders fighting to rescind or resize national monuments created by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in southern Utah's Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante areas.
“The day has arrived when people outside of our industry have that level of understanding about recreation's contributions to the economy and this is the day that our political presence will be fully actualized,” said Luis Benitez, the director of the Colorado Recreation Industry Office. “These numbers showing up when they are and recognizing just how big it is and acknowledging the fact that a significant portion of those numbers are driven by the utilization and access to our public lands, you have a pretty different kind of dialogue pretty instantaneously.”
Last month saw the formation of the first-ever outdoor recreation caucuses in both the U.S. House and Senate. The bipartisan efforts — led by Sens. Jim Risch (R-ID) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Reps. Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Boulder Democrat Jared Polis — aim to preserve public lands and waters as the cornerstone of the outdoor recreation industry while supporting the growth of the industry's manufacturers, retailers and outfitters.
The association's report shows outdoor recreation spending more than doubling since 2007, when the first-ever recreation economy report counted $243 billion spent on recreational trips and $46 billion on outdoor products.
“We have shown that our economy continues to grow,” said Roberts. “So what we will be talking to members of Congress about is the importance of preserving public lands and waters and also increasing recreation infrastructure across the country and that that's a good investment that's going to have good economic returns for communities both in terms of jobs created but also taxes paid.”
Roberts on Thursday will join industry chief executives speaking at the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection to discuss the economic report.
“This is an opportunity to amplify our message that we probably didn't have 10 years ago,” she said. “I think the members are interested in what Congress can do on the business side to help our industry grow.”
In the Intermountain West states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, consumers spend $104.5 billion a year on outdoor recreation and support 925,000 jobs, generating $7.7 billion in federal taxes and $7.2 billion in state and local taxes.
Outdoor recreation on the country's Forest Service land - which includes 47 percent, or 11.3 million acres of Colorado's wild lands - contributes more than $13 million to the national economy. The OIA report shows that Western rural counties with the highest percentage of federal land boast the nation's fastest growing population, employment and personal income growth per capita.
“There's been so much focus on rural communities that maybe were previously dependent on logging or extraction and the communities that have been proactive on changing their economies to be focused on outdoor recreation have done really well and they are finding recreation is a sustainable and dependable economy that will continue for many years,” Roberts said.
It took the association about 18 months to compile the report. The sample size, with survey responses from consumers in every congressional district in the country, is 70 percent larger than the 2012 report.
This summer the association will release state numbers and in early next year the group will release data from each congressional district, showing how many jobs and how much tax revenue outdoor recreation creates in each corner of the country.
“I think going forward that data is actually going to be the most useful for members of Congress because they will be able to see the exact impact in their district,” Roberts said. “There are quite a few member of Congress asking us when this report will come out and there will be a lot of comparing. Everyone sees this as a positive economy and they want to be a leader in growing it.”
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