Defining Recreation and Tourism Impacts on Federal Lands. I. The Outdoor Recreation Economy and Wilderness

Categories included in OIA 2017 Study

This is the beginning of a series in which we will explore current trends in recreation and tourism and their impacts on federal lands.

I’ve noticed that when people write op-eds about Wilderness, they tend to talk about the value of the “recreation industry.” But are those figures really relevant to their argument?

In this recent op-ed in the Colorado Springs Gazette, for example, John Stansfield, of Wild Connections, wrote
“Colorado’s public lands are a major economic driver for the state’s economy with our outdoor recreation industry generating $28 billion annually, supporting 229,000 jobs.”

I tried to find where this figure came from and found this Denver Post article.

The value of Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy has grown to $62.5 billion, almost double what it was just five years ago, and now supports about 511,000 jobs across the state, says a state report released Friday.

Gov. John Hickenlooper joined staffers from several different state and federal agencies, outdoor businesses and conservation groups along the South Platte River in Lower Downtown to unveil the latest survey of the state’s outdoor recreation economy. Hickenlooper noted the big increase in the overall economic contribution — to $62.5 billion from $34 billion in 2013.

“This puts it as one of the top economic drivers of our economy,” Hickenlooper said. “That’s a $35 billion contribution to our GDP (Gross Domestic Product). That’s more than 10 percent.

So I looked into the Colorado Parks and Wildlife report which was based on information from the Outdoor Recreation industry (I’m not criticizing this approach, just pointing out that getting information from industries should not be a “bad” thing or a “good” thing depending on our views about that industry). Also, it’s probably true that CPW is not unbiased either, but that’s OK, because we can read the report.

The DPW study used a broader definition than the OIA study, so that’s why their figures are higher. Here’s a link to the OIA study.

But is it really fair to argue for Wilderness based on recreation figures from skateboarding, to RVing to snowmobiling, most of which don’t take place in Wilderness? If you were designing an economic study to argue for Wilderness, wouldn’t you want to include ($ paid by people who would only visit if this area were Wilderness) – ($lost by people who could no longer recreate in this Wilderness)? How would you design an accurate estimate? I’d start with a survey that asks “in these specific areas (in the Wilderness Bill under consideration) are you more or less likely to recreate there if it were Wilderness? Then there’s the related impact question of “how much more impact would these recreationists have, both in terms of the land and wildlife, and in the travel to get there?”

These are all the questions that might be asked and answered in an EIS, but Congressional designation is political (in this particular case it appears to be a symbolic political act).

Here’s another quote:
“Frequent surveys show a majority of Coloradans prefer to permanently protect our public lands for present and future generations to enjoy.”
This leaves out “exactly what are we protecting them from? from other members of the public enjoying them?” and “by designating Wilderness, are they adequately protected from recreation impacts?”. What are the mechanics of that? If it is narrowing down the user pool (to only hikers and equestrians) permanently, I guess that makes sense, but of course they have their own impacts, sometimes fairly significant. It’s just confusing to me that there is the “protection from people” language in the same argument as “the outdoor industry makes lots of money.”

27 thoughts on “Defining Recreation and Tourism Impacts on Federal Lands. I. The Outdoor Recreation Economy and Wilderness”

  1. Interesting perspective from Sharon Friedman, Ph.D., forest geneticist, Forest Service Retiree (2012); former Chair of both the Forest Policy Committee and Forest Science and Technology Board at the Society of American Foresters. T
    For me, the more compelling conversation rather than economic benefits, relates to the importance of connecting more people and especially future generations to the critical need to retain our public lands for the “greatests good for the greatest number in the long run”. Without passionate, emotionally connected to our public lands citizens we are at risk of losing the advocacy that has helped to create them in the first place. Outdoor recreation is so much more than an economic driver.

    • I agree, Bruce. I also think that there might be a multi-user group constituency for:

      *Making the pie bigger (purchases, easements and access to public lands)
      * Improving behavior of all user groups, rather than kicking user groups out.
      * Having recreationists pay more of their way on federal lands.
      * Giving urban and suburbanites better opportunities closer to where they live.
      and perhaps
      * We don’t need more guided recreation, we have enough (too many?) people out there already.

  2. This is an interesting subject, and I look forward to following this series.

    I often read a similar perspective from hunting advocacy orgs, the dollars generated etc, and also from the energy sector. I’d take all numbers with a generous helping of salt.

    I remember reading a census survey on hunting/fishing/wildlife watching that included watching around the home. which I’d guess could be done even in apartments in a very urban environment or someone feeding pigeons in the park etc.

    “Protecting” can mean many different things also, and many have a perhaps skewed perspective of threats to lands. I wonder how many people think Trump sold Bears Ears to the Oil Companies, or the difference between a Monument and a Wilderness. I remember one radio talkie who now is a high official in a presidential campaign on his show one day seemingly not even knowing the difference between the uses of state lands vs federal or Forests vs Parks.

    Often emotional appeals are made to sway public opinion to a less than informed public, or representatives vote under pressure from large campaign contributors or NGOs able to deliver crucial voting blocks.

    I like your five starred points Sharron, they should be added as addendum to all legislation that established our public lands with the sixth commandment being Bruce’s “greatests good for the greatest number in the long run”. In the long run I’m optimistic. While it’s true that outdoor recreation numbers are shrinking, given the free time and resources to participate I’d imagine much larger portions of our population would recreate outdoors.

  3. The article Sharon linked to was not at all written by Ed Zahniser, son of Howard Zahniser, author of the Wilderness Act of 1964.

    The article was written by John Stansfield and it was John who wrote: “Colorado’s public lands are a major economic driver for the state’s economy with our outdoor recreation industry generating $28 billion annually, supporting 229,000 jobs.”

    I seriously doubted that Ed Zahniser would make that type of generic economic case for public lands and/or Wilderness protection, so just thought I’d double check that it wasn’t Zahniser who wrote that. [Thanks for updating and correcting your blog post Sharon]

    For whatever it’s worth, there is basically a split in the Wilderness and public lands movement between those groups who seem to always promote public lands and Wilderness protection first and foremost in terms of economics and those of who who value public lands and Wilderness for things like natural processes, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, clean air, clean water, solitude, mitigating the impacts of climate change, combating the extinction crisis, etc.

    Most of us roll our eyes and bristle when Wilderness and public lands groups tout “$XX spending and ZZ in jobs generated from outdoor recreation” as the top reason to protect wilderness or our public lands.

    • “Recreation industry” is really a loaded term and it doesn’t really encompass the totality of economic impacts of recreation on federally managed lands.

      The answer to the question of “is economic impacts of recreation in Wilderness is relevant to the argument of Wilderness supporters.” Of course it is, but it isn’t their only argument.

      I thought this section from one of Matthew K’s post was true and well-stated:
      “For whatever it’s worth, there is basically a split in the Wilderness and public lands movement between those groups who seem to always promote public lands and Wilderness protection first and foremost in terms of economics and those of who who value public lands and Wilderness for things like natural processes, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, clean air, clean water, solitude, mitigating the impacts of climate change, combating the extinction crisis, etc.”

      As I mentioned, good economic data (both for Wilderness and non) is very hard to come by. And although anyone can quibble with the $35 billion figure quoted, I would argue there is overwhelming consensus that Hickenlooper’s quote is correct; “This puts it as one of the top economic drivers of our economy,”

  4. I remember taking a road trip around Colorado around 1973. We pulled on to a gravel road east of Grand Junction and saw a BLM sign that said something like, “this is your land to explore and enjoy”,
    I have always been a strong believer in our public lands.

  5. I like the idea of discussing current trends in recreation on federally managed lands — and how those trends could be addressed via planning and management. Ditto ways to leverage grant programs, state agencies and volunteer efforts in identifying trends and helping with planning/management.

    Volunteers from TSW could compose a survey regarding recreation trends and economic data, identify state and perhaps county agency/people most knowledgeable, make contacts and see if we could compile some useful info. (Do we dare request the same from federal land managers?) But how could we make this info available to recreation planners and managers????

    Regarding the “Outdoor Recreation and Economy… ”
    I don’t think there is any accurate data on the economic impacts of recreation on federally managed lands. Some states and universities attempt to extrapolate numbers from various sources, but it isn’t very accurate and is usually used to promote recreation or to assist state agencies. The Western Governors’ Association put a fair bit of effort back in 2012. I’ll dig that up and send it along. Point is, if the effort is to accurately define the economic impacts of recreation, both in and out of Wilderness, I would simply go with…. huge.

    Finally, I’ll add that the economic impacts of Wilderness designation has been a source of much controversy. I can’t imagine any discussion here could reveal any hidden consensus.

    • The USFS in Oregon elected to deal with high visitor use of three wilderness areas via two methods: A limited entry permits system plus user fees. The agency recently dropped the user fees, in the face of negative public comments, but the limited entry permits system, and permits will be required as of May 22. There’s a lot of public confusion over the permits, because users will pay a “processing cost” to get them — the fee charges to issue the permits. The process plus the user fees would have amounted to $4 to $11 per person, per day.

      As of May 22, the “processing cost” will be $1 for a day permit and $6 per night per group for an overnight permit. (A group might be 1 person).

      Note that the processing fee — very high, IMHO — goes to the the contractor — nothing comes back to the forests.

      Here’s a recent article from the Eugene Register-Guard….


      The cost to hike and camp in three of Oregon’s most popular wilderness areas won’t be quite as high as expected.

      The U.S. Forest Service announced Thursday that it would cost $1 for a day permit and $6 for an overnight permit to enter the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson and Mount Washington wilderness areas beginning this summer.

      That’s a major drop from the $4 to $11 per person, per day, that was proposed earlier this year and received an overwhelmingly negative response from over 13,000 public comments.

      The reason for the drop appears to be a deadline missed by Forest Service officials, but there were multiple factors at play, officials said.

      The permit system is intended to limit overcrowding and environmental damage in 450,000 acres of Oregon’s most beautiful but fragile backcountry.

      Permits will go on sale at beginning April 7 and be required from May 22 to Sept. 25, even though some key questions about the system still need to be finalized.

      • It would be an interesting study to see how people respond to not being able to go to Wilderness… where they will go instead. Maybe some researchers from OSU or PNW are looking at this?

        • The USFS folks are preparing for dealing with angry would-be hikers, those who won’t be allowed into one of the wildernesses. Big change from self-registration. Great subject for a study! Which would be useful for future wilderness use limitation.

          • I wonder if we could do something less passive than hoping some researcher will study this..time for The People’s Science Agency!

    • Brian, I do think that the NVUM numbers may be useful for Forest Service lands and relatively little utilized. When I called the White River last week, while I was on hold there was a recording that said that they were the #1 visited Forest in the nation. They said that they got those numbers from the NVUM.
      For an essay in Steve’s book I looked at some NVUM numbers on Wilderness, and income and distances of people recreating based on NVUM that were interesting. And I found the site very easy to use (compared to timber info). Here’s a link
      I’d be interested in posting whatever people find out.

      • I dunno. I haven’t yet looked in detail at the link you provided. I did review a few of the results for the Uncompagre/Grand Mesa, NFs. Didn’t find much detail, but will look more. (And “axles per vehicle” ?!?!? So, mountain bike = Subaru = Jeep?)

        My experience with NVUM numbers is dated, but was pretty good for the (very) few places that were surveyed, but no data anywhere else.

      • The White River is the most highly visited forest in NFS, but that’s due to ski area visits. Not saying they shouldn’t count, but they are very different from hiking/biking/hunting/shooting/fishing/camping visits.

  6. I remember being engaged in the Recreation Facilities Analysis (RFA) and now the Sustainable Trails Strategy (Region 6 2/2020) as a reviewer for NGOs, and both worry me. They were given birth by a chronically underfunded USFS recreation program, and the answer to having too much to maintain was to analyse all recreation assets and remove the underutilized ones. With both initiatives, they seem to not respect the fact that lesser used campsites, trailheads, and trails can in many ways be the most treasured by those who don’t seek busy sites that are good for an economic model. This also is true for Wilderness. If the USFS ignores or closes Wilderness trails and trailheads because they don’t get enough use to generate enough downstream cash, is that really the message we want to send about our public lands? Solitude is undesirable because it doesn’t pay the bills? Closing these sites and trails, as they have done, then pushes the masses to the crowded ones. Then the USFS has to manage for too many users in too few places, such as the Oregon situation.

    • Strongly agree that lesser-used site are the most valuable to many folks. In some cases, small campgrounds with little use are maintained, at least minimally, by concessionaires who have a contract for all or most sites in a given area.

      With the USFS charging fees for wilderness entry, combined with inadequate staffing, I can imagine that turning them over to concessionaires may be attractive.

    • Jeff, I haven’t been involved in any recreation strategizing. I seem to remember an effort that said “we can’t pay for it, so let’s close down the least used” I get how pragmatic that was intended to be, and how the FS is between a rock and a hard place on this.

      It has been puzzling to me why the recreation funding coalition isn’t more successful at getting $ from Congress. It seems just as bipartisan as LWCF. Does anyone have insights?

      • My take on recreation funding: Up until now the recreation community has been too fractured and at odds with each. Hikers don’t like mountain bikers, both have issues with motorized etc. The issue of additional funds, thru a backpack tax or otherwise supplanting recreation fund vs supplanting those funds has also been an issue. ie: LWCF

        • I’m a hiker and I only dislike annoying mountain bikers, hikers and motorized folks. I wonder whether hikers actually don’t like other users, or whether organizations of hikers don’t like other users as part of their rationale for protecting their own (the pie is only so big).
          Waiting for fed $ to go up seems like a recipe for 1) bad experiences by visitors 2) stressed out public employees 3) environmental damage 4) safety problems and 5) the luxury of blaming someone else (Congress).. I think we need to try to exit that cycle somehow. Ideas?

      • One of the problems with federal dollars not going up is that any new initiatives may sound good but end up taking funds from other places. If the USFS is supposed to support new recreation showcase projects or increase volunteerism without additional funds, they have to find the way to pay for these things by dropping funding for projects and staff elsewhere. Another example is the push to restore the Legacy Roads and Trails account. It is fine to restore LRT if it doesn’t mean dropping other accounts like the Capital Maintenance Trails and Roads fund, much of which now pays for similar objectives. Some youth groups want to now use the Recreational Trails Program funds to go to their particular services. Their services are great, but it ignores the fact that RTP is a highly competitive grant revenue source already. Instead of working together for new dollars, we push initiatives by promising legislators they don’t have pay for them with new money. So we instead tug at each other’s money. Also conservation groups are always looking at ways to rechannel public support for recreation into conservation and protection efforts. Hunters and water users help drive this desire for more trailless wildlands and wilderness. But this doesn’t really help trail users who end up being poster children for recreation but don’t really gain places to recreate.

        It is indeed too bad we don’t honestly work together better.

        • Jeff, thanks for helping us understand all these different funding sources. It would be interesting to look at different conservation groups and see how much they spend on advocating for less access and how much they spend on helping agencies with trails and other opportunities to make the pie bigger. This could help us with those specific interests (helping agencies and making the pie bigger) target our donations.

          I wonder what keeps us all from “working together better.”? Some coalitions seem to agree on things (e.g., more money) and then fight about how to divvy it up afterwards. Maybe there’s more glory in “protecting places permanently” than helping fund law enforcement or trails or port-a-potties? Maybe some conservation organizations (boards?) are more ambivalent about recreation than we know. I can’t remember who said it but someone said “if you want to examine policies, don’t look at words, look at the budget.”

          It is puzzling, to me at least. Ideas?

  7. You mention wilderness access on foot or horseback; but don’t leave out by boat (rafts, canoes, guide boats). For some areas, there are a limited number of places where boaters can put in or take out, allowing for good sampling of socio-economic data.

  8. Sharon (in the original post, about economic effects of wilderness): “These are all the questions that might be asked and answered in an EIS …”

    Fortuitously, the Nantahala-Pisgah actually highlights these questions in its EIS (and “Recreation visitor spending is the largest single source of economic activity associated with Nantahala
    and Pisgah NFs management”). First of all, the range of alternatives is based partly on providing different recreation opportunities, as described here:

    However, there is nothing in the EIS that attempts to answer the economic questions Sharon posed in relation to the forest plan alternatives. Despite the differences in recreation management, the number of recreation “jobs contributed” and “labor income” by the different alternatives is the same (and equal to current levels).

    The EIS does talk about the economic value of some types of recreation, including wilderness. Regarding the economic value of wilderness, it cites some sources for some general conclusions:

    “Wilderness is often seen as the counterpoint to economic development of forest resources because
    wilderness designation restricts land management activities and uses. There have been no peer
    reviewed studies that have found adverse effects on regional economies due to the designation of
    wilderness areas (Hjerpe, et al. 2017).”

    “Despite the fact that Wilderness designation requires foregoing short-term economic gains in resource extractive industries, some studies have found that Wilderness has increased long-term regional economic development opportunities (Holmes et al. 2015). Amenities provided by wilderness areas, for instance, scenic values and recreational opportunities, are strong attractors to mobile entrepreneurs, professionals, and retirees. A number of studies have found that protected lands attract new residents and businesses, which contribute to economic growth (Rudzitis and Johnson 2000; Deller et al. 2001).”

  9. Here’s a couple of other recent articles that involve national forest recreation planning and seem to fit under this heading:

    “The focus of this effort is to answer the question of are we capturing enough value or are we doing enough to benefit our residents with that recreational economy?” John Day City Manager Nick Green said. “Specifically positioning John Day and Main Street as a gateway to the Malheur National Forest and the public road plans that are available to our region. ”

    The Bitterroot National Forest banned the creation of new, bolted rock climbing routes earlier this month, forcing climbers and conservationists to contemplate the future of the sport in the area. That’s because the sport’s rise in popularity is bringing with it new conflicts over the role of recreation in the forest, prompting land managers like Stevensville District Ranger Steve Brown to ask, “What do we want climbing to look like on the forest as a whole?” He says public meetings beginning this spring will form the backbone of a climbing management plan that answers that question — and governs bolting in the forest in the long run. Previously, climbing management was set to be handled with the Bitterroot’s broader forest plan revision, but that multi-year process has been repeatedly kicked down the road.”


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