OIA Study: Not Enough People Participating in Outdoor Recreation

When people design, or read the results of studies, scale is an important concept to keep in mind. Though this is not a scientific report, the choice of scale is a value choice, not a science choice. My old examples were economic studies of the effects of reducing timber harvest on federal lands in the Northwest. If your scale was Forks, Washington, the State of Washington, or the US, the conclusions about impacts were likely to be different. A national or even worldwide average may not be true in any individual place. You can take the average of apples, oranges and kumquats, but it may not be all that meaningful in understanding how to grow fruit. That’s why designing studies with the idea of how you are going to use them is so important.

In January 2020, the Outdoor Industry Association released a national study that concluded: Americans went on one billion fewer outdoor outings in 2018 than they did in 2008. Those of us who recreate on National Forests might wonder why those numbers would be so different from what we observe, which in my case, in Colorado, is definitely an increase.

This article from the Spokane Register looks at that and the author interviewed several people.

Visitor data from Washington State Parks bears those anecdotal observations out. According to a parks spokesperson the number of park visits continues to increase with no drop in attendance. For instance, in 2018 Riverside State Park logged more than 1 million visits compared to 780,000 in 2014.

Here’s one from the Steamboat Pilot in Steamboat Springs, Colorado:

Surveys collected by the Steamboat Springs Chamber suggest more people are coming to Steamboat specifically to enjoy its outdoor recreation opportunities. In 2017, 52% of respondents said they visited the area to hike, according to Laura Soard, marketing director for the Chamber. By 2019, that percentage increased to 62%.

Other activities showed similar upward trends. The number of people who said they visited to Steamboat to bike doubled from 2017 to 2019, according to Soard.

“It shows us that people are doing more of that when they stay here,” she said.

Across the board, the vast majority of people report being satisfied with Steamboat’s trails, according to the city’s trail use survey. More than 92% of respondents rated the trail conditions as a 4 or 5 out of 5.

Ironically, one of the only concerns respondents voiced, particularly as the city tries to bill itself as an outdoor mecca, is the crowdedness of local trails.

“It’s a catch-22,” Robinson said. “People are saying we are too crowded, yet we are going through marketing efforts to bring more people to town.”

While the study offers no solutions of its own for America’s nature deficit, it predicts future declines in outdoor trips. By reminding people of the value of the outdoors and making recreation opportunities accessible to people, regardless of income or ethnicity, the nation could reverse that trend. What that would do to Steamboat’s concerns of overcrowding, only time will tell.

So it’s puzzling.
Too many people or not enough recreating? Are they recreating in the “wrong” places (causing overcrowding)?
Are there not enough lower-income and people of color recreating outdoors?
But lower-income people seem to do plenty of recreating on federal lands, when they live nearby.
Perhaps it’s the cost of getting to, and staying overnight, that prices lower-income urban and suburban people out of that kind of recreating.

If so, why do recreation groups spend effort to get permanent designations for places lower-income people are unlikely to visit?

Why does the outdoor industry focus on Utah’s federal lands rather than promoting opportunities for recreation that are more affordable to non-Uthan Americans? For example, they are involved in issues like Bears Ears, even to moving their annual trade show from Salt Lake City to Denver due to the positions of Utah elected officials.

TSW folks: Please add coverage of this study from other newspapers/media if you have seen it.

3 thoughts on “OIA Study: Not Enough People Participating in Outdoor Recreation”

  1. There certainly seems to be a lot of contradictory thinking in this area. People say there are not enough people recreating outdoors, yet complain about overcrowding at recreation sites. People say they want to grow the outdoor recreation economy, but push wilderness bills that would decrease the allowable uses of public lands.

    I’ve seen numerous articles and ads promoting the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act using pictures of people mountain biking, while the main thrust of the bill is to expand wilderness designations which will forever outlaw mountain biking in areas where people enjoy it today. Not to mention that wilderness areas are correlated with lower economic benefit to surrounding communities, and that expanding wilderness harms the outdoor recreation economy rather than promoting it.

  2. Sharon, you raise good questions regarding use of public lands by diverse groups. In doing some research, I found this research paper by the USFS in Oregon that examined how Asian Americans, African Americans and Latinos use the outdoors. The research found they had different preferences in how they engage outdoors — safety, proximity and areas to enjoy with family were frequently mentioned. An interesting and useful read.

    USFS study re diversity https://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/documents/psw_gtr210/psw_gtr210_123.pdf

    • Thanks for this link, Rebecca! It just reminds me how diverse populations are and how “where they live” can be so important (urban/rural), plus where the line is between “recreation” and “subsistence” (firewood, fishing, hunting). It reminded me of the analysis for Colorado Roadless and rural Hispanic people in various Colorado counties, and hearing at the public meetings in the San Luis Valley about people who had been there for 500 years.

      I’d say there are differences (not in priority order) on 1. where (location and culture of the community), 2. where (urban/rural), 3. how many generations people have been in the area 4) whether they can afford it or have time, 5) family/ethnic cultural factors. Would be interesting to do this study across the West, including historically Hispanic and Native American areas.
      The below is from page 345 of the 2012 FEIS:

      “In addition to minority populations, environmental justice also addresses low-income populations. Table 3-82 also displays the percent of county and state individuals living below the poverty level in 2009, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. The percentage of households that heat with wood as their primary heat source is also included by county in Table 3-82 as this is often another low-income indicator. In some areas of the State, heating with wood is an important factor to consider when looking at potential impacts of Forest Service actions as many low-income families gather and use wood as their primary source of affordable heat.
      The State had about 12 percent of the total population living below the poverty level in 2009. Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla, Saguache, Huerfano and Rio Blanco Counties all had individual poverty rates 20 percent or higher in 2009. In 1999, Huerfano and Rio Blanco counties poverty rate was below 20 percent but both have seen their poverty rates increase to over 20 percent in the last 10 years. In addition, Conejos, Costilla and Saguache Counties also had higher levels of households heating with wood. These counties are within the Southern San Luis Valley (SSLV) in southern Colorado, and have historically seen lower income levels and higher minority populations than the rest of Colorado.”

      Within the SSLV, many rural Hispanic families continue to live in traditional ways on lands farmed by their ancestors. Many families operate outside the cash economy, relying on access to public lands for resources they need. This includes subsistence hunting and gathering, gathering wood for heating and cooking, grazing small herds of domestic animals under permit, and gathering traditional cultural products. (Romero, 2001).

      I was also reading old Oprah magazines, and ran across an article on Outdoor Afro, http://www.oprah.com/inspiration/black-women-travel-and-backpacking
      So things are changing as well, as time goes on.


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