The Outdoor Economy

ORR is working to change the way lawmakers and state officials think about outdoor funding
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Outdoor recreational assets have become big draws for establishing new businesses in small cities and rural areas.

Outdoor recreational assets have become big draws for establishing new businesses in small cities and rural areas.

Rural Montana isn’t commonly associated with the tech industry. But Bozeman, a micropolitan city in the Rocky Mountains of the state’s southwest, has become attractive to startups seeking cheaper and more appealing alternatives to Silicon Valley.

The region is among a growing number that are tempting out-of-state companies and workers with sweeping views of mountainous terrain, as well as cheaper real estate, says Jessica Wahl, executive director for the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, a coalition of outdoor industry stakeholders formed in 2017.

Outdoor recreation is a growing draw for young talent whose focus is quality of life. Around 10,000 people employed in Bozeman’s burgeoning tech industry earn an average of $65,000 a year in a place that offers fly-fishing and skiing. Using outdoor resources as recruitment tools is becoming fashionable among large firms, too; Goldman Sachs’ second-largest bank is in Salt Lake City, Utah, because younger employees aren’t interested in burning themselves out on Wall Street, Wahl says.

“People want to live near the mountains or the ocean,” Wahl says. “We are emphasizing that it helps with recruitment and retention for people who just want to be near recreational assets.”

A survey of executives at Utah’s fastest-growing firms showed the state’s access to outdoor recreation was a major reason companies chose to base there, beating more traditional factors such as favorable tax rates and regulatory environments, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Outdoor recreation stakeholders are not only looking to capitalize on the trend, but also are seeking to make it a potential solution for states losing jobs in sectors such as mining, Wahl says. “In New Mexico, there’s a rural community that’s going to have a coal-fired power plant close and will lose 1,000 jobs,” Wahl says. “And it has this great recreational asset, so we’ve been working with the state to see, how do we give it what it needs? It doesn’t need much, some trail markers. But it’s thinking about recreation as a possible solution to that rural economy. We wouldn’t have had those conversations before, and I think we’re going to see some really exciting changes moving forward.”

The association is working with state outdoor offices to fund technical assistance in rural communities that want help developing a recreational infrastructure; so far, 10 communities have been funded.

The coalition also worked on establishing more state outdoor recreation offices, adding six last year and bringing the total to 16. Wahl expects that number to grow to as many as 24 by the end of the year.

One of the main endeavors for this year is to get a federal recreational spending package off the ground, Wahl says. “We met with members of the Senate and House, and had eight member meetings on the Hill,” she says. “We’ve been talking to them about having a recreation package — like the farm bill or energy bill — that they have to move every three years or everybody freaks out.”

The group wants bills focused on recreation, which often earn bipartisan support, grouped to stand on their own, rather than getting squeezed into an energy or other bill that gets held up over something else, Wahl says.

The industry has gotten much more traction among legislators since the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account, or ORSA, began releasing data on outdoor recreation’s economic impact in 2018. It determined that outdoor recreation contributes 2.2 percent to the gross domestic product — more than agriculture or mining.

Last year, the account received long-term funding, ensuring that the recreation economy study is now a line item in the annual commerce bill. That will help stakeholders track annual changes at the national and state levels, and determine which policies are working.

“I think a lot of people were eager for this information to understand how outdoor recreation, and all these activities, fit into the overall U.S. economy,” says Bureau of Economic Analysis spokesman Thomas Dail. “I think people have a really good sense of how outdoor recreation fits into their lives, but this adds another dimension.”

That newfound understanding could also help make the case for state outdoor recreation offices, particularly in states such as Indiana, where the RV industry dominates ORSA activity, or Florida, where the same is true of boating.

The Outdoor Recreational Roundtable is also getting its first-ever study of the Recreational Trails Program to determine exactly how much the states are investing in recreational trails and resources. The program is funded in part with excise taxes collected from non-highway recreational fuel use by the Federal Highway Trust Fund, and is administered through the states.

“We know a high fuel tax goes into this program, higher than what comes back to trail support,” Wahl says. “We’ll be looking at what comes in from that fuel tax, and just trying to see what’s coming into the pot and say, Why isn’t that number coming out in the form of trail projects? We’ve never had a number we could advocate for strongly.

“We’re just setting ourselves up with the types of tools and data and references and ROI that many other industries have had for decades,” Wahl adds. “Getting all this information out in the next few years will be really impactful to our goal.” 

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.

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