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Exercise in nature, such as going for a hike, especially effective at helping improve people's health. Photo by Jason Prater.

Trails: Good for Hikers. Good for Communities. Good for the Economy.

A new scientific study shows that trails give back to the state by boosting the economy and improving people's physical and mental health | By Jessi Loerch

Hikers have long known that time spent on trail is good for them. It’s great exercise, it boosts mental health and it’s a way to connect with the people you love.

A new scientific study from 2019 shows that hiking is not only good for individual health, it’s also good for local economies across the state.

“This study proves that getting out in nature is a more than a hobby,” said Jill Simmons, WTA’s chief executive officer. “It is good for our minds and bodies. And when you consider the economic and health benefits, it is clear we need to invest more in our trails and public lands.”

Washington Trails Association has been backing the study for years, encouraging the Legislature to fund the study during the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions.

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Time on trail can be particularly good for kids, the study shows. Photo by Ashley Burke.
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“We’ve known for a long time that outdoor recreation is a huge contributor to the economy,” said Andrea Imler, WTA’s advocacy director. “But the piece we were missing was to bring that information down even closer to trails specifically. This study fills that gap. Having data from a statistically valid study really shows that trails are a must-have, not just a ‘nice to have.’”

Adam Domanski, senior economist at ECONorthwest, worked on the study. He says the study measured the value of non-motorized trails in Washington state on a broad scale, including benefits to users as well as businesses and communities.

“The study is really a decision tool,” Adam said. “This is a way for state and regional decision makers to make better-informed decisions on where to spend that next dollar.”

We need trails

Eighty-four percent of people in Washington enjoy some sort of non-motorized outdoor recreation. A lot of that recreation is on trails — and more hikers are hitting the trails each year.

But the trail system is strained. Despite the impressive economic and health benefits trails already show, with more investment, trails could be doing even more to help our state.

Adam says this study can help decision makers understand that investing in trails is worth the cost. For instance, the study found that $1 spent on trails saved $2.94 in health-care costs.

Trails that are close to where people live are particularly important. Having a trail nearby increases how often people get out. The study found that every additional trailhead in a county meant a 0.6 percent increase in trail use. And that effect still held true even when accounting for demographics such as income, education and age.

"Having data from a statistically valid study really shows that trails are a must-have, not just a ‘nice to have.’”
—Andrea Imler, WTA advocacy director

To better understand the benefit of trails, the researchers used two trails as case studies: the Centennial Trail in Spokane County and Lake Serene on Highway 2 west of Stevens Pass. The researchers found that the Centennial Trail, which is nearly 40 miles long, supports 1.5 million walking and biking trips each year. The trail contributes $1.7 million to the area annually in addition to $1.6 million in health savings.

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Across the state, trail users provide powerful economic benefits to local economies. Researchers looked at the Centennial Trail (left) and Lake Serene (right) to help understand how trails affect communities. Photos by Crystal Polacek, Nicole Sanabria.

When trails become inaccessible, health and economic benefits are reduced both for would-be visitors and local communities.

This was the case at Lake Serene, which offers a short hike to a waterfall and a longer hike to an alpine lake. The trail was closed for nearby logging activities from August 2017 to September 2018. During that time, more than 39,000 potential hikers had to go somewhere else or forgo a hike, according to a model developed by the University of Washington.

“We know that trails provide a lot of benefits. People are healthier when they use trails, trails are good for local businesses and trails are better for the environment,” said Kaleen Cottingham, director of the state Recreation and Conservation Office, which released the report. “It just makes sense that state and local leaders should invest in this valuable commodity. Not only will people benefit, but so will the state overall.”


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Exercising outside has been shown to offer additional mental health benefits. Photo by Neil Clemons.
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The health benefits of trails

It’s probably obvious that hiking is good for you physically. Walking has long been encouraged as effective exercise. Time on trail offers substantial mental health benefits as well.

“A study among Washington adults found that those who spent more time outdoors reported less depression, and another study of Washington residents found that more forests were associated with fewer days of mental health complaints,” the report said.

WTA’s community knows that. We often hear stories from hikers about how they use trails to improve their mental or physical health — or to recover from particularly hard times in their lives. 

Joe Hendricks, a hiker, trip reporter and WTA volunteer, is one such hiker. Joe and his wife, Heidi, were both diagnosed with cancer within 3 months of each other in 2008. They used trails as a way to rejuvenate during treatment.

Heidi sadly died several years later. For Joe, getting back on trail was hard, but it became an important part of his healing.

“After Heidi’s death, I almost stopped hiking altogether,” Joe said. “A week after she died I tried the Upper Dungeness River Trail and turned back in despair. … The hikes got easier over time, but I still notice tears when hiking one of her favorite trails today.”

Joe encourages others who are dealing with illness or grief to get outside.

The report backs up what Joe knows, going so far as to suggest trails as a health intervention.

“A study among Washington adults found that those who spent more time outdoors reported less depression, and another study of Washington residents found that more forests were associated with fewer days of mental health complaints.”
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The study recommends that the state should build more trails to provide access for more people. Photo courtesy King County Parks.
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What’s next?

The study offers a number of recommendations, and we’ll be talking with lawmakers and land managers about ways to make those suggestions a reality. We’re excited to see how this study can help build a stronger trail system to benefit all of Washington.

“This study shows that the benefits of trails are staggering,” Andrea said. “There is demand for trails, and this study shows that there’s unmet need. Trails are more than worth the investment they require.”

Read more about the study 

The new study, “Economic, Environmental, & Social Benefits of Recreational Trails in Washington State,” was released by the Washington Recreation and Conservation Office. The study was conducted by ECONorthwest in collaboration with Washington Trails Association and Washington Bikes. The study is in two parts: an economic analysis of the benefit of trails and a literature review of the health benefits of time on trail and in nature. See the full study at http://bit.ly/trails_study.

An interactive website: To make the study even more powerful for decision makers on a local level, an interactive website shows the economic and health benefits of trails broken down by county and by legislative district. econw.shinyapps.io/econ_wa_rec_trails.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.