Does Play Really Pay?

It's pretty clear there’s much more to the “recreation economy” than we’ve been hearing from the self-proclaimed “outdoor industry”

By Dave Skinner

With spring finally, finally springing, yahoo! Time to make play while the sun shines! And boy, do we play! How much, exactly?

Well, in mid-February, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) within the Department of Commerce released initial results from a first-ever analysis of the outdoor recreation sector’s economic contribution, $374 billion in 2016. The full report will come this fall.

Is $374 billion a big deal? Maybe it should be – the Hollywood “sector” only cranks out $124 billion, but you’d never know that given all the glitz and hype, right? Outdoor rec even stomps agriculture (farming, fishing and forestry, $177 billion) and mining (including petroleum, $277 billion) – as the Spokesman Review was happy to point out – recreation is “larger than that of oil, gas extraction.”

Some outdoor recreation lobbyists quickly declared the BEA study confirms their position on public lands policy, that human-powered recreational uses should take top priority on public lands because then local economies will prosper. Um, not so fast.

Last fall, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), released a report claiming outdoor recreation in Montana was responsible for $7.1 billion in consumer spending and 70,000 jobs with $2 billion in wages – and tallied national outdoor recreation at $887 billion of GDP.

Impressive? Maybe, but I had my doubts, and more doubts now. $887 billion versus $374 billion is a huge difference, with OIA’s explanation of the gap to Outside magazine being U.S. BEA didn’t count “revenue generated from apparel and equipment manufactured overseas (the lion’s share of outdoor gear)” except “when that gear was sold at retail.” Well, yeah … billions in cash shipped overseas shouldn’t count as “domestic product.” OIA also pointed out that commerce didn’t count the two-thirds of recreation “within 50 miles” of home. That would tighten those numbers up, right? Nope – that’s local money, earned local, spent (if any) local, which would be spent locally on something else if not “recreation.”

There was also much ado about the fast growth of the sector, 3.8 percent versus the general economy of 2.8 percent in 2016. We should ride that tiger, eh? Nope. While nice, recreation is not mandatory spending. We deal with our needs first, our wants after. In economic terms, our “wants” are “marginal” or “elastic.” In relation to the rest of the economy, recreation, especially organized, is inherently more boom and bust, more fickle and variable.

Even if recreation was recession-proof, using OIA’s numbers above, each of those supposed 70,000 Montana outdoor recreation jobs averages only $28,571 a year, or $14.28 theoretically – below the $15 “living wage” and well below Montana’s average wage per job of $41,440.

OK, so what did the BEA uncover about outdoor recreation? Well, I laughed upon learning that $59 billion of this sector is credited to the manufacture of motorized vehicles. Yep! Of those, $30 billion are “recreational vehicles” as in fuel-guzzling motor homes and (likely) camping trailers. Boating and fishing? $38 billion – and you can bet those aren’t just kayaks, canoes and rafts. Hunting, shooting and trapping? $15.4 billion, with hunting being 60 percent, or $9.2 billion. Horses? About $10 billion. In sum, as GearJunkie put it, “hunting, fishing, and motorized vehicles contributed the most among outdoor activities. And RVs contributed more than half of the motorized vehicle value.”

What’s left over? You guessed it – backpacking, hiking and climbing (plus gear), which certain special interests insist is the only appropriate “outdoor industry” deserving top policy priority on public lands. As Outside reported, all that remains is “$10 billion, well behind the hook-and-bullet industries.”

Bottom line, preliminary results from BEA made it pretty clear there’s much more to the “recreation economy” than we’ve been hearing from the self-proclaimed “outdoor industry.” I don’t blame them for lobbying for the highest-priority policy treatment on public lands – they are, as they say, “industry.”

But other, modern, mechanized forms of recreation, as well as fundamental economic activities (agriculture, minerals, livestock and by gosh, forestry) on public land, clearly offer more value to more people. To ignore, minimize, or, as some seem to want, sacrifice options that are already of real value to Montana, is foolish.

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