Recreation Industry Worried About Future Lack of Recreationists Again

Skiers and snowboarders linger on the tundra below Peak 10 in the Tenmile Range, July 4, 2023, in Summit County. The Fourth of July Bowl tends to hold snow into the summer due to its aspect and elevation, which attracts the annual tradition to ski on July 4th. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)


Naturally, like probably all TSW readers, I am a big fan of, and participate in, recreation on National Forests.  It’s been interesting to observe the media concern loop on “outdoor recreation” over time.  First people weren’t getting outdoors enough (“nature deficit”); then people were getting outdoors so much that it created conflict and environmental damage; now the Outdoor Industry Association is worried again that there won’t be enough people recreating.  It’s always confusing because sometimes they count things like soccer balls as part of “outdoor recreation”; and of course RVs and boats and OHV’s and so on.  So sometimes it’s hard to tell what exactly what kind of outdoor recreation they are talking about, and how that relates specifically to FS and BLM lands.

Interesting story in the Colorado Sun.

A few years ago, the outdoor industry was struggling to get more people outside after several decades of participation studies showing nearly half of Americans did not go outdoors to have fun.

The pandemic changed that and the latest study by the Boulder-based Outdoor Industry Association shows a record 168.1 million Americans — 55% of the population ages 6 and up — went outside for recreation in 2022. That’s a 2.3% increase over the previous record in 2021. Since January 2020, 14.5 million more Americans went outdoors to run, hike, bike, camp and participate in all sorts of other activities.

And those newcomers are increasingly diverse. The participation rate for Hispanic people reached 56% in 2022, up from 34% in 2015. The rate of participation for Black people reached 40.7% in 2022, up 5 percentage points over 2021. Last year 61% of LGBTQ people recreated outside, with more than 18 million participants, up from 15.8 million in 2021. And more seniors (defined as 55 and older) than ever before went outside to play, with 35% joining the ranks of the outdoor recreators, up from 28% in 2018.

There’s a lot to cheer about in outdoor recreation right now, but “don’t think we are out here doing a victory lap,” said Kent Ebersole, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The latest participation snapshot shows storms on the horizon. Younger Americans — ages 13 to 24 — are not getting outside. Outings for families with children are declining.

Thank you for recreating outdoors. Please come again. And again.

Americans logged 11.8 billion outdoor recreation outings in 2022 and while that number seems huge, it’s troubling. The frequency of those trips outdoors is declining. Ten years ago the average number of outdoor recreation outings was 84.6 per participant. Now it’s down to 71.8.

The decline in younger folks getting outdoors to play harkens to the industry’s struggles around 2008 when participation in all categories was flat or declining.

Hard work to reach new outdoor recreation players and more diverse groups has helped, but still the industry is struggling to reach younger generations.

“Fast forward eight years when today’s 18-year-olds are 25. Will there then be three generations with anemic participation and does that spell a future where we go back to 2008 and are flat for a decade or more?” Ebersole said. “If we let another generation go by and we don’t talk to them and we don’t reach them, we are going to be in a world of hurt.”


Land managers are adjusting plans to accommodate the growth in recreation. The Bureau of Land Management hosted 81 million visitors on its 245 million acres in 2022, up 40% from 2012 with almost a third of that increase occurring since 2020. The Forest Service counted 168 million nationwide visits in 2020, up from 160 million in 2012.

Both agencies are launching community-focused strategies around recreation.

The BLM’s new Blueprint for 21st Century Outdoor Recreation started last month with major shifts in how the agency prioritizes recreation on its 245 million acres. The BLM’s budget for recreation in 2022 was $60.2 million, or about 74 cents per visit, compared with 84 cents per visit in 2012. The new strategy will enable local land managers to partner with a growing roster of groups lined up to help ease costs or even fund recreational amenities and events.

The Forest Service a year ago launched its five-year “Reimagine Recreation” plan with this note: “Our public lands can also be a source of healing, inspiration, and purpose to bridge some of the divides and challenges our country has faced over the past few years.”

The challenge is to convert that growing army of outdoor users into advocates who can sway public policy, said Tania Lown-Hecht with the Outdoor Alliance, a coalition of national recreation and conservation organizations that pushes for legislation to protect outdoor spaces.

One thing that always confuses me is that these groups say that they want more folks outside, so they will act to vote to “protect” the spaces.  But many of the places “protected”, say Wilderness areas, don’t allow certain kinds of very popular recreation.. in fact, as Patrick McKay has pointed out, new Monument plans also disfavor certain kinds of recreation. So it seems like the OIA works to reduce access, and is also worried that apparently the right kinds of people won’t be doing the right kind of recreation (possibly involving buying things from their associated companies?) sometime in the future. Would it be so bad if there were fewer people in the woods, grasslands, shrublands? Not so bad for other people recreating, it seems to me.  Not so bad for wildlife.  Not so bad for climate- for all the carbon people expend getting to recreation sites. Simple observation of interstates or other main routes to federal lands on Friday evenings suggest that recreation can have quite a carbon footprint.

Of course it might be considered bad to sell more recreation goods that would otherwise be bought… often made out of fossil fuels, transported from Asia and so on.  It’s interesting to me that environmental advocacy is often about pointing fingers at other industries and ignoring their own industry’s contribution to climate change or reducing biodiversity.  Of course, that’s human nature, but who knew that business institutions had those kind of human tendencies?  And media folks don’t seem to report on that much for whatever reason.

Anyway, I took a look at the OIA policy platform and they have some interesting trade-related policies …plus this

Require the United States Forest Service (USFS) to develop a 10-year outdoor recreation strategy for national forests under the forestry title.

I’ve seen many strategies come and go in my time, or don’t actually go, but sit around unread and unused. And as we have seen, both the BLM and the FS currently have new recreation strategies. Perhaps someone out there knows what the goal of this requirement would be?

4 thoughts on “Recreation Industry Worried About Future Lack of Recreationists Again”

  1. I completely agree there has always been something bizarre about the notion that promotion of increased recreation will lead to more people advocating for increased “protection” of that land. Maybe that was true back when public lands faced more threats from mining and logging, which could also have detrimental effects on recreation. But with those uses all but extinct now, increased protection of public lands almost always means “protecting” it from recreation, and invariably results in road and trail closures plus restrictions on activities like camping and rock climbing.

    For recreationists to advocate for increased levels of protection would be for them to directly advocate against their own interests in accessing public lands. Granted I have seen some comments from people who claim to enjoy recreation on public lands but have come to believe that those same lands must be closed to public recreation “for the greater good” or some such. But such views are generally not the norm. The fact is, recreation and preservation have become fully opposed interests with little overlap or room for compromise. To advocate for one means to oppose the other in a zero-sum winner-take-all contest between mutually exclusive uses of public lands.

    • I think you’re spot on. In addition to that, we suffer from a large segment of Americans who are suspicious of, or downright oppose, fun in the outdoors. Their idea of suitable recreation is walking or canoeing and doing so reverently. I bet most young people find either thing supremely boring. But their dour elders strive through law, regulation and policy to limit anything exhilarating, be it mountain biking, bungee jumping, foot races and indeed any competitive activity, motor sports, zip-lining, Via Ferratas, galloping on a horse, etc. They basically have the personality of George Will, about whom one wonders if he ever had a childhood or was born at age 28.

    • It’s only zero-sum for a specific piece of ground. If you look at a large landscape (a national forest is probably not big enough), the gain and pain could be spread around.

      I once knew something about recreation demand studies, which should tell you something about what to supply for the greatest good for the greatest number. But I never had a lot of confidence in how useful it was. Maybe someone has some recent and more direct experience with planning for outdoor recreation?

      Under the old planning regulations, the analysis of the management situation (AMS) was supposed to look at the supply of and demand for multiple uses. Conceptually, that still seems necessary in some form. I just took a quick look at the assessment for the Rio Grande revision, which concludes this: “We lack recreation opportunity spectrum inventories assessing current and future recreation demand needs. The actual supply of recreation opportunity spectrum summer and winter settings is unknown and it is unknown whether recreation opportunity spectrum allocations established in the 1996 Forest Plan have been met.” It’s pretty hard to get a handle on a problem and figure out how to fix it if you’ve learned nothing about it in the decades you’ve been managing it.


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