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Analysis shows the significance of the Mountain West's outdoor recreation economy

Troy Oppie
Boise State Public Radio

The outdoor recreation sector is massive, contributing some $454 billion to the U.S. GDP, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The nonpartisan research group Headwaters Economics recently unpacked that federal data, and the analysis shows where in the West that impact is especially pronounced.

That nearly half-trillion-dollar figure is from 2021, the most recent full-year available data. Outdoor recreation represented almost 2% of the U.S. economy – more than twice car manufacturing – and it accounted for some 4.5 million jobs.

In many Western states the impact was substantially higher. In Montana and Wyoming, recreation was 4.4% and 3.6% of the states' economies, respectively. Idaho, Utah and Colorado also had figures well above the country as a whole. But as with many sectors of the economy, pandemic shutdowns hit recreation hard.

“I think the economy, at least the outdoor recreation economy, has really recovered from that,” said Megan Lawson, an Headwaters economist who authored the analysis.

The analysis shows that the sector’s economic impact jumped by more than 20% from 2020 to 2021, and employment rose by about 13%.

“The outdoor recreation economy is big and growing,” Lawson said. “And I think an important aspect of the outdoor recreation economy story is that it's not just about tourism and it's not just about the hospitality industries, retail. Outdoor recreation supports a lot of different sectors of our economy – it supports manufacturing and warehousing and wholesale trade, real estate, health care, (and) construction.”

She also noted that there is evidence that the cabin fever-fueled surge in interest in outdoor recreation seen at the outset of the pandemic does not appear to be waning.

“The number of folks getting outside, the number of trips people are taking are similar to those … early pandemic numbers,” she said. “And so I would agree that there has been something of a reset. Folks either rediscovered or discovered for the first time the mental health, physical health benefits of getting outside.”

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.
Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Murphy Woodhouse

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