Turkey Creek Nature Preserve in Pinson, Alabama, was created with the help of the state's Forever Wild program. Photo by Nelson Brooke, used with permission

While much of the news related to the growing outdoor recreation economy in rural communities is focused on federal budgets and public land policy, a new report documents the important role of state-based funding sources. The study reports that the vast majority, as much as 80%, of land conservation spending comes from state and local governments.

“State funding helps to drive outdoor recreation, and is often a critical factor in leveraging federal dollars,” said Headwaters Economics’ Kelly Poehl, one of the study’s authors. In addition, said Poehl, “many local communities are seeing a decrease in federal dollars at the same time they’re seeing a large increase in demand for outdoor recreation.” The study was developed for the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group of outdoor recreation companies and organizations.

Many rural communities are looking to cash in the outdoor recreation trend, hoping that they can create jobs and local economic activity from the $887 billion economic engine. The sector is linked closely with publicly available conservation lands and waters that support camping, fishing, hunting, hiking, biking, boating, and other outdoor recreation activities.

Through a variety of legal and policy mechanisms, the researchers document the variety of ways individual states have sought to invest in outdoor recreation locally. Whether passed by legislative statute or through citizen-led petition and referendum, common revenue sources are sales taxes, legislative appropriations and publicly-issued bonds. Examples are Arkansas’s $2.20 per $1000 value of certain real estate transactions and Alabama’s Forever Wild Land Trust collecting 10% of the interest income from the state’s offshore natural gas fund.

Minnesota, for example, has capitalized $490 million in outdoor recreation projects since it was passed by constitutional amendment by the state’s voters in 2008. The Amendment was passed by 56% of voters statewide in the depths of the Great Recession.

“It’s been transformative for Minnesota,” said Susan Schmidt, Minnesota state director for The Trust for Public Land (TPL). “Conservation projects all over the state, both in urban areas and in rural communities, are benefiting. The hikers and birdwatchers, the hunter and fisherman who are guaranteed access to Heritage Fund acquisitions, and people like me who like to throw their kayaks and canoes in water, we all benefit.”

Schmidt’s organization was part of collaborative effort to pass the Amendment, a “marriage between the four interests who benefit.” The Minnesota program instituted a three-eighths of one percent sales through 2034. Proceeds are directed into four separate Legacy Funds:

  • Parks and Trails Fund – 14.25 percent
  • Outdoor Heritage Fund – 33 percent
  • Clean Water Fund – 33 percent
  • Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund – 19.75 percent

Rural conservation partnerships all over Minnesota are seeing benefits, according to Schmidt. “There’s the La Salle Lake State Recreation Area, the Mississippi River Northwoods region, the mountain biking community growing up around the Crosby area,” Schmidt pointed to as examples.

This cross-sector appeal often bridges the rural-urban divide that can exist for so many issues, according to the study. “State and local conservation issues are not red or blue,” said Poehl. She points to the Trust for Public Land’s Landvote.org database that tracks local conservation ballot measures in specific communities nationwide.

Poehl said that Minnesota’s conservation funding program is a good example for other states with broad rural regions. “Their Amendment was broad enough to capture a diversity of interests that led to the generation of resources. They were able to combine funding for parks and trails with the arts and hunting and fishing interests to achieve the program outcomes,” said Poehl.

Another report finding is that many states are developing funding and programs designed to help underserved communities, such as rural areas, access the available resources. “Far too often, rural communities can lose out. Maybe they don’t the matching funds necessary to leverage certain funding. Or maybe they don’t have a grantwriter on staff to submit applications,” Poehl said.

“It’s important for states and local communities to know they’re not starting from scratch,” Poehl remarks. When it comes to exploring the prospects for outdoor recreation as a driver for the rural economy, “there are lots of lessons learned, peer resources and support staff available to help. Communities can learn from each other.”

Rural citizens interested in learning about state funding mechanisms that support outdoor recreation can read the full report at https://headwaterseconomics.org/wp-content/uploads/state-rec-fullreport.pdf. State-based case studies are included for ArkansasColoradoMinnesotaNorth CarolinaTexasVermont, and Washington.

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