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Economic Development Opportunities in Outdoor Recreation

For many Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a new interest in getting outside and exploring the nation’s abundant national, state, and local parks for the first time. Others capitalized on teleworking to spend as much time outside as possible. Economic and travel data show that one thing is certain: outdoor recreation plays a significant role in our national and local economic success.

According to the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, the outdoor recreation industry was responsible for $862 billion in economic output – almost 2% of GDP – and 4.5 million jobs in 2021. Estimates produced by industry stakeholders contend that those figures could be even higher.

The diversity of outdoor recreation activities creates an array of economic opportunities for communities and retailers alike. Virtually every environment or landscape has the potential to support at least one kind of outdoor activity. Optimal hiking, climbing, camping, fishing, hunting, biking, and snow and water sports experiences all require local buy-in for enjoyment by outdoor enthusiasts and newcomers.

Communities looking for new economic drivers, particularly in rural areas, should lean into the economic opportunities made possible by their unique natural resources. This means strategic planning and investment in projects like trail restoration and expansion, trailhead infrastructure, water conservation, and guide and outfitter training. In recent years, the federal government has increased its investment in protecting our public lands and waters, as well as supporting development projects for communities experiencing economic distress.

Strategic planning is a crucial first step in identifying the economic strengths and weaknesses associated with a particular region or community. Opportunities for assistance exist within the Environmental Protection Agency’s Recreation Economy for Rural Communities planning assistance program, which helps grant recipients identify strategies to grow their outdoor recreation economies and revitalize nearby Main Streets.

Reauthorization of the Economic Development Administration (EDA) presents significant opportunities for rural economic development and the outdoor recreation economy. Through funding provided by the American Rescue Plan Act, EDA invested in the expansion of trail networks and bike paths, renovation of state park campgrounds, and construction of river access infrastructure and other outdoor infrastructure.

As EDA reauthorization, fiscal year 2024 appropriations, and an outdoor recreation package remain very much in play, the 118th Congress may be one of the best opportunities in recent years for economic development that incorporates outdoor recreation.


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