The Business Case for Investing in Outdoor Recreation

Outdoor recreation is a big part of the economy, generating billions of dollars annually in Montana alone

By Diane Conradi

I love the “aaaaahh” moment – when you open the car door at the trailhead, breathe the air, hear the rustle of leaves, and step into the dappled sunlight. I’m kind of addicted. Author Florence Williams calls it getting a “nature fix.”

I often get my “nature fix” on the Whitefish Trail – it’s close to my home, it’s easy, and it’s exhilarating. But I could get it on the Cut Bank Trails near Cut Bank, where you walk in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, Selway Park in Dillon, where you can slip a boat into the Beaverhead after work, the River’s Edge Trail in Great Falls, where you can take lunchtime bike ride, or Makoshika State Park, where you can camp among the hoodoos and dinosaur fossils of the Montana Badlands.

All these places are beautiful, but they have something else in common – recreation infrastructure – a clunky term that can mean a boat ramp, a trail or a campground. Investments like these make “frontcountry” places easier, safer and more pleasurable to visit.

These frontcountry places cost money – parking lots, toilets, roads, visitor signs, boat ramps, and water systems. Is it worth it? I think so. Each dollar spent on outdoor recreation infrastructure has an enormous return on investment – in economic vitality, health and wellness and quality of life. But we’re not feeding our golden goose.

Montana state park visitation grows every year, but it has a $23 million maintenance backlog. National park visitation is breaking records as well, yet have an eye-popping $12 billion (that’s with a “b”) backlog of maintenance needs, with $18 million in Yellowstone and $153 million in Glacier. The U.S. Forest Service has a deferred maintenance backlog of $4.4 billion.

Meanwhile, Congress has allowed the largest source of funding for outdoor recreation infrastructure, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), to expire. That pot of money, funded entirely by royalties from offshore drilling since 1964, should be a predictable source of money to fix and acquire parks and trails. Yet Congress has allowed it to expire.

The good news is that Congress can still fix this. And it should do so quickly. Outdoor recreation infrastructure is a good investment.

Let’s look at some numbers. Here are the national figures:

Consumers spend $887 billion every year on outdoor recreation.

Outdoor recreation generates 7.6 million direct jobs.

Those jobs create $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue and $59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue.

Outdoor recreation accounted for 2.2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product in 2016.

Here are the Montana figures:

Consumers spent $7.1 billion recreating in Montana.

That created 71,000 jobs.

Those jobs generated $2.2 billion in wages and $286 million in state and local taxes.

Here’s a local example:

The Whitefish Trail is estimated to contribute $6.4 million in annual spending by visitors and locals who purchase or rent outdoor gear at local stores and spend money for lodging, eating and shopping. That translates to 68 additional jobs and $1.9 million in labor income in Whitefish.

Quick and easy access to the outdoors benefits everybody, especially the growing segments of our economy.

Tech businesses pay wages that are 53 percent above the statewide average. That money boosts entire communities, but filling those jobs requires more than just money. That’s why Montana employers tout quality outdoor access as a benefit, especially if a trailhead or boat ramp is a few minutes from the job. Montana competes for top talent with Seattle, Boulder and the Bay Area. Those places might offer more money, but they can’t offer what we have: abundant nature, easily accessible.

We need to keep it that way, but Congress dithers over reviving LWCF, and that means parks and trails are losing nearly $3 million a day. We need dedicated permanent federal investment in outdoor recreation infrastructure.

We need counties and cities to step up. We need them to realize that outdoor recreation infrastructure is a big part of the economy that funds our schools and roads and hospitals.

Individuals must speak up about creating, protecting, and enhancing the outdoor experience.

Those “aaaah moments” matter to all of us. They keep us happier and healthier. And they also keep our economy rolling.

Diane Conradi creates, protects and enhances the outdoor recreation experience as an attorney at Conradi Anderson, PLLC and as founder of Montana Access Project, which advises communities seeking quality outdoor recreation access. She served on the first Montana State Parks and Recreation Board and is co-founder of Montana State Parks Foundation and Whitefish Legacy Partners.

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