Two years ago, the Outdoor Industry Association released a report estimating the national economic impact of the outdoor industry at $887 billion a year. That number has since become a sort of gospel for people looking to push pro-public lands policies across the finish line and invest in recreation economies at a local level around the country.
But what that number didn’t capture was the direct impact recreation has on the local growth of mountain towns and similar outdoor-oriented communities. A new report from Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman-based nonprofit research group, does just that. The report found that a county with recreation attracts more new residents, higher incomes, and faster earnings growth than a county without recreation, particularly for areas designated as rural (less than 10,000 residents) and micropolitan (less than 50,000 residents).
“We already knew that having outdoor recreation nearby brings tourists to your community,” says Megan Lawson, an economist at Headwaters and author of the study. “But what we didn’t have great information on was whether that tourist and those amenities translate into people actually wanting to move to and live in these communities.”
Lawson looked at each county in the U.S. that the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service designated as a “recreation county”—meaning that the local economy is primarily dependent on entertainment and recreation, as well as the associated hospitality industry—and found that while many tourism-dependent communities are known for their low-paying service jobs, the people moving there tend to be wealthier. And though recreation county wages are lower on average, they are growing at a pace that will soon meet or exceed the wages of non-recreation counties. Places with recreation are seeing a steady trickle of people moving in rather than moving away—something particularly significant for rural America, which is losing more residents than it is gaining.
“Outdoor recreation is being seen as a legitimate economic development strategy,” says Lawson. “It’s not just ski bums and dirt bags any more that are the face of an outdoor recreation economy. It’s the entrepreneurs that are moving to a community, bringing their families and their businesses.”
But this influx of higher incomes and wealthier residents is not without its challenges, as any member of the workforce in Bozeman, Truckee, Jackson, Crested Butte, or any other mountain town could tell you.
Rapid growth in many recreation communities means a higher cost of living, affordable housing challenges, and development encroaching into wildfire-prone and other vulnerable landscapes. If we aren’t careful, the report warns, these risks could outstrip the benefits of a growing recreation-based economy.
“The local government has to play an active role in countering that. It’s not something that will just fix itself,” says Stacy Corless, commissioner for California's Mono County, home to Mammoth.
That can take many forms—from paying for basic needs and services to making high speed internet available to accelerating innovative housing solutions for a town’s workforce. And on top of all that, local governments in outdoor destinations are often the ones who step in to invest in recreation infrastructure when no one else can.
“What we’ve come to recognize is that we need the recreational amenities of our public lands to be in good shape, for our own quality of life, for our communities, but also for our recreation and tourism-based economies,” says Corless. This includes “really basic things like making sure bathrooms get opened in time for the annual fishing season opener. The Forest Service is only budgeted to start doing that stuff on Memorial Day, so we cover the cost and we have our contractor go in and open the bathrooms, clean the bathrooms, and empty trash dumpsters. And I think things like that happen all over the west in rural counties.”
Despite the tradeoffs and active role local governments would have to play to both support and grow and then ultimately deal with the cons associated with recreation economies, the findings from Headwaters Economics show that investing in this kind of recreation infrastructure could be a game changer for many communities.
“There are definitely communities that are looking at recreation, and they want to have those problems associated with too many people moving to town,” says Lawson. “It’s important to recognize that recreation is not a silver bullet for every place. It’s not the case where you build a trail, people will come, the rivers will flow with milk and honey and all of our problems will be solved. It’s one option in the toolbox. But for some places, it might be a good fit.”