The Great Chimney, a rock climbing route between a cliff and a sea stack on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean at Acadia National Park. Maine is one of the 16 states with Offices of Outdoor Recreation. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Sixteen state governments have created outdoor-recreation offices to help spur economic growth in rural areas by promoting activities like hiking, climbing, mountain biking, and whitewater sports.

The trend underscores the belief that such sports are an economic boon for rural areas.

Montana created the Office of Outdoor Recreation within the state’s Office of Economic Development in 2017.

“A lot of people are surprised when I give them statistics and numbers about the outdoor recreation economy in Montana,” said Rachel VandeVoort, director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation.  “Outdoor recreation represents over 5 percent of our economy and $70 billion in annual consumer spending in Montana, and creates more than 71,000 jobs.” 

VandeVoort, an outdoors enthusiast and Montana’s first outdoor recreation director, says an outdoor lifestyle is something most Montanans enjoy without considering their economic impact. “A lot of times, people will say to me, ‘but I don’t recreate,’ and these are people who hunt, who fish, who ride UTVs (all-terrain vehicles). These people, these traditions and ways of life are all part of the growth of the outdoor economy. It’s not just tourists from out of state.” 

State offices of outdoor recreation are located primarily in the Mountain West, Great Lakes and New England regions. Two additional states have outdoor-recreation task forces.

The outdoor recreation economy has been a rare bright spot in many rural communities, particularly those places near public lands. Rural counties with recreation-based economies have slightly higher incomes and are seeing more population growth since 2010, according to Headwaters Economics’ 2019 report, Recreation Counties Attracting New Residents and Higher Incomes

“Counties with outdoor recreation economies are more likely to attract new residents with greater wealth and have faster-growing wages than their non-recreation counterparts,” wrote Headwaters researcher Megan Lawson, author of the study. “These trends are particularly true in rural communities.” 

New data and statistics about the outdoor recreation economy from the U. S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) has corresponded with the rise in interest about the economic development potential of the sector. The most recent BEA report estimates that: 

  • The U.S. outdoor recreation economy accounted for 2.2 percent ($427.2 billion) of current‐dollar gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017. 
  • The Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account (ORSA) also shows that GDP for the outdoor recreation economy grew after inflation by 3.9 percent in 2017, faster than the 2.4 percent growth of the overall U.S. economy. 
  • Real gross output, compensation, and employment all grew faster in outdoor recreation than for the economy as a whole. The relative size of the outdoor recreation economy ranged from 5.4 percent of GDP for Hawaii to 1.2 percent of GDP for the District of Columbia.

Most of the states that have established offices of outdoor recreation are signatories to the Confluence Accords, a “bipartisan organization developing a national platform to grow the outdoor recreation industry, protect our nation’s wild places and transform conservation into a driver for economic prosperity.”

States in the Confluence Accord have agreed to uphold principles of conservation, education, workforce training, economic development, and public health to support the growth of the outdoor economy.

The trend in state-based initiatives appears to be continuing to pick up momentum. Just last month, Minnesota launched its Outdoor Recreation Task Force, a joint initiative of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Explore Minnesota, the state’s tourism office. The task force will make recommendations on how to expand the recreation economy and improve outdoor access. 

“Outdoor recreation provides substantial social, economic, and health-related benefits to Minnesotans,” Governor Tim Walz said in a statement when launching the task force. “This task force represents a ‘big-tent’ effort to bring together a community of leaders who will make recommendations to make sure Minnesota is second-to-none in outdoor recreation and economic opportunity.”

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