Outdoor Recreation: America’s Overlooked Economic Giant

Outdoor recreation has long been an integral makeup of our national identity, but if you ask most Americans to list the top industries in the U.S., you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would list outdoor recreation as a crucial component of our national economy. Which is why I did a double take when looking over the figures of the latest Outdoor Recreation Economy report and realizing that Americans spend more on outdoor recreation ($646 billion) than they do on either pharmaceuticals ($331 billion) or gasoline ($354 billion).

According to the report, released in June 2012 by the Outdoor Industry Association, the laid-back, life is good, tree-hugging hippie outdoor industry is more of an economic powerhouse than anyone originally suspected. As it turns out, Americans spend $646 billion annually on outdoor recreation and more than six million Americans have jobs thanks to outdoor recreation.

Not only do both national and local economies benefit directly from outdoor recreation sales, the $646 billion in direct consumer spending results in $80 billion combined in annual state and national tax revenue. Looking at job comparisons by industry, the outdoor recreation industry employs more Americans (6.1 million) than the oil and gas industry (2.1 million), more Americans than the construction industry (5.5 million), more Americans than the information (2.5 million) or education industries (3.5 million), and more Americans than the finance and insurance industries (5.8 million).

The report brings to light some surprising statistics about one of America’s overlooked economic giants as well as information highlighting how critical our public lands are to the economic well-being of both the outdoor industry and the country.

According to the National Association of State Park Directors, more than 725 million visits provide $20 billion in economic benefits to the communities surrounding state parks across the country and the National Park Service estimates that $32 million would be lost per day if budget cuts shut down the parks.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that outdoor recreation is absolutely essential to the U.S. economy, further reinforcing the need to address threats (like climate change or decreasing federal land protection) that have serious implications for the outdoor industry. In 2010, Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the Outdoor Industry Association, touched on the impact climate change could have and what that might mean for the industry, stating, “Healthy public lands that support the nation’s $730 billion outdoor recreation economy are imperiled by a warming climate. The outdoor recreation industry and those who pursue outdoor activities are among the first to experience the impacts of climate change on our public lands.” As we have already seen (see this article), climate change is throwing some pretty substantial punches to the heart of the snowsports industry and further threats to our public lands will have a devastating impact on a strong (and growing) sector of the U.S. economy.

The Department of the Interior reported that public lands attracted more than 400 million visits by Americans and international travelers, contributing nearly $50 billion in economic activity and 400,00 jobs. Further highlighting the strong link between the protection of public lands and the economy, the 2012 report goes on to point out that rural western counties with more than thirty percent of their land under federal protection saw jobs increase at a rate four times faster than rural countries with no federally protected lands. At a time when most industries were downsizing, the outdoor recreation economy grew around five percent between 2005 and 2011.

The purpose of the Outdoor Recreation Economy report, says the Outdoor Industry Association, is to showcase the economic, social, and health benefits of outdoor recreation and demonstrate to politicians how vital this “growing and diverse economic super sector” is to communities through the U.S.

“Our industry has a reputation for being ‘soft,’ being more about lands and nature than we are about people and priorities,” reads the OIA literature accompanying the report, “However, what we do has real economic value to our communities and our country.”

One read of this report and the evidence of that statement is crystal clear. The outdoor recreation economy has grown up, gained weight, and moved classes. The folks up on Capitol Hill should probably take note.

All stats are sourced from the OIA Outdoor Recreation Economy 2012 Report unless otherwise stated.

By Nikki Hodgson