Gene Chague: Outdoor recreation is big business in this country

Sunday July 8, 2012


The Outdoor Industry Association recently released "The Outdoor Recreation Economy," detailing the national economic impact of outdoor recreation (OR) in the United States. According to the report, OR has an annual economic impact of $1.6 trillion.

The information is based upon economic analyses conducted by Southwick Associates, Inc., and consumer surveys developed and executed by Harris Interactive Information. According to their various surveys and analyses, outdoor recreation is responsible for 6.1 million American jobs, $646 billion in outdoor recreation spending each year, $39.9 billion in federal tax revenue and $39.7 billion in state/local tax revenue.

According to the Association, the last comprehensive study was released in 2006, and much has changed since then. The Great Recession radically altered consumer spending habits, unemployment reached its highest level in decades, and federal and state deficits resulted in massive spending cuts. Yet, more than 140 million Americans made outdoor recreation a priority in their daily lives, proving it with their wallets by putting $646 billion of their hard-earned dollars right back into the economy. Even better, this spending directly results in highly sought-after jobs for 6.1 million Americans.

At the core of the recreation economy is the outdoor consumer, whose diverse interests fuel a robust and innovative industry. Today's outdoor lovers aren't confined to traditional demographics or activity segments. They seek meaningful outdoor experiences in their backyards and in the back country. They are all genders, ages, shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and income levels. They live throughout America, and they view outdoor recreation as an essential part of their daily lives. They fill their garages with bicycles, dirt bikes, backpacks, boats, skis, tents, hunting rifles and fishing gear. This is redefining the outdoor industry, an evolution that is evident in the growth of sales and jobs since 2006.

In short, outdoor recreation is a growing and diverse economic super sector that is a vital cornerstone of successful communities that cannot be ignored. Most importantly, it is no longer a "nice to have," it is now a "must have" as leaders across the country recognize the undeniable economic, social and health benefits of outdoor recreation.

More than 140 million Americans make OR a priority in their daily lives, and they prove it with their wallets, as evidenced by the $646 billion. It is an overlooked economic giant and is essential to the American economy. It compares with pharmaceuticals ($331), motor vehicles and parts ($340), financial services and Insurance ($780), outpatient health care ($767), gasoline and other fuels ($354), and household utilities ($309).

The outdoor economy thrives when Americans spend their hard-earned dollars in pursuit of outdoor recreation. This spending occurs in two forms: the purchase of gear and vehicles, and dollars spent on trips and travel. Gear purchases include anything for outdoor recreation, such as outdoor apparel and footwear, bicycles, skis, fishing waders, tents, rifles, or backpacks. Vehicle purchases include vehicles and accessories used only for outdoor recreation, such as boats, motorcycles, RVs, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.

The outdoor economy grows long after consumers purchase outdoor gear and vehicles. When people use their outdoor gear and vehicles, they spend money on day and overnight trips, and on travel-related expenses such as airfares, rental cars, lodging, campgrounds, restaurants, groceries, gasoline and souvenirs. They pay for river guides and outfitters, lift tickets and ski lessons, entrance fees, licenses and much more. Their spending supports innumerable small business owners. And they visit recreation areas that are cared for by land managers, park rangers, various organizations and volunteers.

A tremendous diversity of career opportunities exists beyond product-related jobs. When Americans play outside during day outings or overnight trips, their spending directly supports professions like guides and outfitters, lodging operators, park managers and rangers, concessionaires, small business owners and many more.

The outdoor recreation economy grew approximately 5 percent annually between 2006 and 2011 -- this during an economic recession when many sectors contracted. Every year, hundreds of millions of visitors -- young and old, after-work enthusiasts to international travelers, and from coast to coast -- flock to America's parks, forests and waters. From seashores and local parks to the wild backcountry, America's public lands and waters are the very foundation of the national outdoor recreation system. Outdoor recreation can increase jobs and drive the economy if we manage and invest in parks, waters and trails as a system designed to sustain economic dividends for America.

More than 725 million visits to state parks provide a collective $20 billion in economic benefits to communities surrounding them. Cities and towns across the country are tapping into the business of outdoor recreation, and for good reason. They recognize that the outdoors and open spaces are key ingredients to healthy communities, contribute to a high quality of life, and most importantly, attract and sustain businesses and families.

The Outdoor Recreation Economy report took a conservative approach in tracking direct annual spending by Americans in pursuit of recreation across 10 activity categories (Bicycling, Camping, Fishing, Hunting, Motorcycling, Off Roading, Snow Sports, Trail Sports, Water Sports and Wildlife Viewing).

Outdoor recreation is a larger and more critical sector of the American economy than most people realize. As a multi-dimensional sector, the billions spent each year flow throughout the American economy and fuels traditional sectors like manufacturing, finance, retail trade, tourism and travel.

Our nation's public recreation lands and waters support the outdoor economy. Not only is access to quality places to play outside critical to our businesses, it is also fundamental to recruiting employers and is at the heart of healthy and productive communities. Open spaces and recreation areas are magnets that draw after-work activity and tourists alike.

With the bountiful natural resources we have here in the Berkshires, I wonder whether we are doing enough to market them so that we can also tap into this robust outdoor economy.

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