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Outdoor recreation economy continues record-breaking growth, especially in the Mountain West

Bureau of Land Management/Flickr Creative Commons

News brief: 

New data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows the massive impact outdoor recreation has on the Mountain West’s economy.

Nationally, outdoor recreation created $862 billion in gross economic output last year, accounting for $454 billion in GDP and 4.5 million jobs. Included in those numbers are activities like biking and boating, but also equipment manufacturing, entertainment and construction.

Overall, the industry contributes more to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product than agriculture, mining or computer manufacturing. Plus, it’s a sector that grew at triple the rate of the general economy. Jobs in outdoor recreation far outpaced general hiring last year.

Screenshot courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Mike Happe, CEO of motorhome manufacturer Winnebago Industries, said the pandemic brought a surge in new customers, reflecting last year's record-breaking growth in activities like camping and boating.

“They were looking for a sense of normalization and control. They wanted to spend newfound discretionary time with family and friends, and they certainly were looking for a sense of adventure,” he said.

In the Mountain West, outdoor recreation is an especially big piece of the region's economic pie. It contributes to 4.4 percent of Montana’s GDP – that’s larger than anywhere other than Hawaii. Jobs in the sector increased by more than 15 percent in most of the region’s states between 2020 and 2021.

Screenshot courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Happe said this data is a strong argument that governments should invest more in marketing and infrastructure in popular outdoor spots, especially because he doesn’t see growth slowing any time soon.

“Eighty-six percent of those first-time buyers in 2021 say that their RV experience meets or exceeds their expectations, which bodes well for our industry certainly going forward in terms of repurchase intent, and further participation,” Happe said.

The retail trade contributes to about a quarter of the outdoor recreation economy – the largest share. Arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services make up the second-largest industry group. Manufacturing ranks third.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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