A New Force on Capitol Hill?

The marine industry hopes outdoor recreation’s contribution to GDP will give it the same clout in Washington as farming and defense
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Outdoor recreation, which contributes more to national GDP than mining or agriculture, could soon see congressional spending packages for the first time.

Outdoor recreation, which contributes more to national GDP than mining or agriculture, could soon see congressional spending packages for the first time.

The Outdoor Recreation Roundtable has already scored a series of wins in 2019, something not many groups in Washington, D.C., can claim in today’s polarized political climate.

A historic natural resources bill, passed in February, contains big wins for the recreational fishing and larger outdoor recreation communities, including permanent reauthorizations of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Every Kid Outdoors Act and a measure supporting sportsmen’s access to public lands. The group also celebrated long-term funding of the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account, which measures outdoor recreation’s contribution to the gross domestic product. As a result, the federal government will appropriate its first-ever study of outdoor recreation’s economic impact on a state level.

“I think the beauty of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable right now is that we are coming together when there is so much divisiveness in Washington,” says executive director Jessica Wahl.

The victory is especially sweet knowing there are competing interests among the diverse coalition that makes up ORR, including advocates from boating, fishing, archery, horseback riding, biking, RVs, motorcycling and shooting sports, to name a handful. “All our industries operate in silos,” and each has unique needs, Wahl says. “But a consumer doesn’t see those silos. They don’t care what each association is doing. They just want people to protect the places they play.”

The ORR has identified hundreds of baseline issues that all the industries care about, she says. “We’re still going to have those local XYZ recreational groups at odds with ABC recreational group,” she says, “but if we’re all getting to know each other better, it gets easier to solve these issues.”

Millennials are driving more cohesion among various interest groups because they find more crossover in recreations than previous generations did. “They want to take their boats to fish, or their motorcycles to the best hiking area,” Wahl says.

She adds that making the Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account a permanent line item will help propel those common areas forward. “It gives us more data to grow the pie, and if we’re growing the pie and giving more opportunities to everyone, maybe these conflicts go away,” Wahl says. “Maybe one group cares less that this area is closed to their recreation if they have all these additional nearby opportunities.”

The Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account is working now to add 2018 data to the numbers unveiled last year showing outdoor recreation contributes 2.2 percent to the nation’s gross domestic product — more than mining or agriculture. “Our goal for this year is also to develop the subnational numbers, presumably that will be state data,” says BEA communications chief Lucas Hitt. Having that data could help equip state associations with compelling presentations for legislators.

2.-ORSA-ORR-graph

The industry already has leveraged national data showing that the outdoor recreation economy grew 3.8 percent in 2016, far outpacing the U.S. economy’s 2.8 percent growth. Boating and fishing had one of the largest growth rates, just behind bicycling, generating $38.2 billion. The two activities were the largest outdoor recreational activity after motorized vehicles, which accounted for $59.4 billion of the gross output — and more than half of that is attributed to RVs.

“Seeing how the boating sector is trending over time and how that compares to other sectors can provide useful information to industry actors in terms of planning and investments,” Hitt says. “I also think it’s helpful to public sector decision-makers, in helping them evaluate the economic impact of land and water use.”

Though the data and the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable might not have played a part in the outcome of the Natural Resources Management Act — which failed to pass Congress last year — land use is a major input into the 2.2 percent GDP contribution, according to Hitt. “At the end of the day, we want to provide the best data,” Hitt says. “I wish I could say good data provides good decisions,” but having a federal apples-to-apples comparison to other industries offers a “huge value proposition.”

It’s the early victories that give Wahl hope for a major spending package focused solely on outdoor recreation in the near future, the same way Congress appropriates agricultural spending packages, for example. The idea is to include important policy changes so generations to come can enjoy outdoor recreational opportunities.

“We’re bigger than mining and agriculture, and other communities that get big bills passed,” Wahl says. “I hope we’ll have a recreation bill, a package that gets approved every year or five years. Just the idea of a long-term funding solution for public lands and recreation is something I’ve never seen before. The idea that we need public space to enjoy all these recreations is a huge leap forward.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue.

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