A new federal government report, which shows outdoor recreation as occupying a bigger share of the economy than agriculture, is also geared toward helping businesses make decisions about investing in outdoor gear and equipment. (Source: Pxhere. Used with permission under Creative Commons)

The outdoor recreation industry is a critical engine for the national economy, larger in size than the agriculture and fossil fuel mining and drilling sectors, according to a recent Department of Commerce report. The report also said that rural communities and small business owners are a key ingredient in the growing economic engine.

“Businesses need the right data to help them hire, invest and grow,” stated Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross when the report was released. “The historical lack of detailed federal data regarding outdoor recreational activities has handicapped both the private and public sectors. The public will no doubt be surprised at the economic importance of this industry.” 

He said the report has “prototype statistics” that measure the impact of boating, fishing, RVing, hunting, camping, hiking, and other activities. The report will provide insights to business executives, small-business owners, entrepreneurs, and government officials as they plan for the future, he said. 

Within the broader outdoor recreation sector, the largest industry is motorized vehicles, accounting for $59.5 billion of gross output in 2016. Recreational vehicles dominate this category. Boating and fishing activities contributed $38.2 billion, with hunting/fishing/trapping delivering $15.4 billion in economic activity. Multi-use apparel and accessories (backpacks, bug spray, etc.) was the fourth largest contributor by category.  

The BEA’s findings differ somewhat from the outdoor recreation statistics generated by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), an industry trade group. OIA’s surveys and data system finds $887 billion of economic activity (more than twice the amount calculated in the federal BEA report) on outdoor recreation while creating 7.6 million American jobs. 

OIA welcomed the BEA report, and explained that the main differences for the report’s findings related to two key methodology distinctions. The BEA report did not account for the revenue produced from apparel and equipment manufactured overseas, which makes up a large portion of outdoor gear. In addition, the BEA did not measure recreation spending on trips that happen less than 50 miles from home for outdoor recreationists.  

Still, the BEA places outdoor recreation among the largest industries tracked by share of GDP. At 2% of GDP, the sector is smaller than construction (4.3 percent) but larger than legal services (1.3 percent), agriculture (1 percent, defined as farming, forestry, and fishing), and mining, oil, and gas extraction (1.4 percent).  

Dedicated in 2015, Browns Canyon National Monument protects 21,586 acres and features rugged granite cliffs, colorful rock outcroppings, and mountain vistas that are home to a diversity of plants and wildlife, including bighorn sheep and golden eagles. Members of Congress, local elected officials, conservation advocates, and community members worked for more than a decade to protect the area, which hosts world-class recreational opportunities that attract visitors from around the globe for hiking, whitewater rafting, hunting and fishing. (Source: Bureau of Land Management)

The BEA report was initiated two years ago when Congress passed and President Obama signed the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act. The law directed the Department of Commerce to work with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior to conduct an assessment and analysis of the outdoor recreation economy through the BEA. 

Rural counties with strong recreation activities have begun to add population again, after a dip for several years after the Great Recession of 2008. Examples of areas that are growing include some mountainous communities in the West where people can easily get to a hiking trail and Southern states with year-round golfing weather.  

According to a Stateline analysis of Census data, the trend for outdoor recreation in rural communities is part of what drove the overall slight growth of the rural population in the United States from 2016 to 2017. This growth reversed population declines since 2010. The population in rural counties grew by only about 33,000 during that time, to about 46 million. While counties with large mining and farming industries shrank, counties with large recreation industries grew the most, by about 42,000, to about 6.3 million. Stateline is a reporting initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts. 

Growth in the rural recreation economy has also been tracked closely by Headwaters Economics, an independent research group. Headwaters has found that population, employment, and personal income on average all grew significantly faster—two times faster or more—in Western rural counties with the highest share of federal lands compared to counties with the lowest share of federal lands. Per capita income growth was slightly higher in counties with more federal land.  

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