Taking account of this overlooked industry could lift the U.S.’s GDP

By Rachel Koning Beals, Dec 6, 2016


(A scene from 2012 near Boulder, Colorado.)

The U.S. economy could be even stronger if the contributions of snowboarders — and fishermen and trail guides and mountain-bikers and scores more professions that make recreation their business — are factored into the Gross Domestic Product calculus.

That’s the motivation behind the Senate-passed Recreation Economic Contributions Act. The bill, passed in late November, now goes to President Obama, where he’s expected to sign it into law. It requires the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Commerce Department wing that crunches GDP, to officially measure the size of the industry.

“It’s an industry that’s been counted in a fractured way — fishing and hunting here, biking and boating over there,” said Luis Benitez, director of Colorado’s relatively new Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. Utah and Washington have similar positions.

“Our hypothesis [behind pushing for the bill] is if we’re counting our jobs and revenue [nationally], we’d be worth more than the auto industry and the pharmaceutical industry,” he said. “And when you think of how much influence and power and support go with [those industries] and then you think that we’re boot-strapped from sport and conservation and health and wellness and more, there’s potential to be considered as an economic engine for the country.”

The law is expected to elevate recreation as a viable economic engine on public and private land, where it will have to compete with the powerful industries of agriculture, mining and timber.

The Outdoor Industry Association already sizes its economic footprint at $646 billion, employing 6.1 million people and contributing $80 billion to local, state and federal tax revenue, according to 2012 data. It provides an interactive graphic of the recreation economic make-up of each state.


The REC Act’s aim is to strengthen the industry’s so-far relatively impotent lobbying efforts, but also to allow decision-making based on uniform annual federal data, rather than a hodge-podge of measurements at the state and local level, where, for instance, ski-rental receipts and hunting license revenue might never be combined, or seasonal gaps can skew the broader economic picture in a particular region.

The combined data effort may also go toward lessening industry infighting, its proponents say. Private use of public lands is the tip of the iceberg. So, for instance, how limited Forest Service budgets for land maintenance are used if commercial interests are also involved is one touchy spot. But personal relationships are also in play. Renegade outdoor enthusiasts have typically been at odds with mainstream commercial interests, for instance, or motorized-boat sellers and naturalists might have different tacks on usage of a particular water source. Recognizing the tension, Benitez created a 24-member advisory council of gear manufacturers, land-management agencies, conservation groups, hunters, mountain bikers and motorized-vehicle enthusiasts.

Benitez said lobbying efforts will use the data to promote growth in “small-batch” manufacturing to better serve recreational markets. So a kayak maker might operate down the road from the retailers that sell the vessels and the tourists who launch them in the river.

Colorado’s Rocky Mountain backyard makes its stake in a growing recreation economy pretty clear, but Benitez said other U.S. regions are increasingly interested in capturing this slice of the economy, with 11 more states considering adding offices like his.

Bentonville, Arkansas, perhaps better known as the home of Wal-Mart, WMT, +0.60% in November drew the International Mountain Bicycling Association World Summit in part because of the trail system development championed from the private sector by Tom Walton, grandson of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.

The timing of the data-bill passage and a unified economic argument may take on added significance as the Trump administration moves in, working with a Republican majority in both houses. Political conservatives are working to transfer some national forests and wildlife refuges to state and local control in what could clear the way for logging, drilling, mining or land sales. At the state level, groups including the American Lands Council and Federalism in Action, backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, have pushed for such legislation. In 2015 alone, there were 36 such bills introduced in states including Idaho, Oregon and Wyoming, Outside Magazine reported.

Benitez is hopeful that the redoubled industry focus comes from “a bipartisan place.”

“We’re talking about billions of dollars. We’re talking about protecting and growing, about job creation,” he said. “It’s not an either/or proposition as far as I’m concerned.”

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