Outdoor Recreation is Worth $373 Billion to the GDP
A new government report shows that the outdoor recreation economy is 2 percent of the GDP—and growing.
In Washington, we know that outdoor recreation is a powerful economic driver. And a lot of that recreation is occurring on trails on public lands—72 percent of Washington residents use trails for their outdoor recreation. These trail users are buying gear, filling their gas tanks and grabbing a bite to eat in towns near trailheads.
The outdoor recreation economy contributed $373.7 billion to the GDP in 2016, according to a new report by Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. That means the outdoor recreation economy accounted for 2 percent of the GDP that year. Additionally, the outdoor recreation economy grew at 3.8 percent that year, while the overall economy grew 2.8 percent. This study supports the case for more investment in federal lands.
What's new? Why does it matter?
It is the first time the BEA has measured these numbers for the outdoor recreation economy. The study was prompted when President Obama signed the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act, directing the agency to measure the outdoor recreation economy like other industries.
The study is important, in part, because it showcases the value of outdoor recreation. It can help lawmakers and businesses make decisions to support that economy, such as funding the infrastructure to support public lands where people go to play. While previous reports have calculated the value of the outdoor recreation economy, this is the first such report by a federal agency—which means federal and local government can use it to help guide their decisions.
“Businesses need the right data to help them hire, invest and grow. The historical lack of detailed federal data regarding outdoor recreation activities has handicapped both the private and public sectors,” said U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
The BEA study shows that the outdoor recreation economy holds its own with other drivers of the economy. For example, mining and oil and gas extraction accounted for 1.4 percent of GDP in 2016 and has been declining in recent years.
The case for public lands funding
These new numbers strengthen the economic case for the value of properly funding and maintaining public lands. We hope this will renew investment in a chronically underfunded trail system.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report describes how the Forest Service’s trail system, one of the primary ways people access federal lands, has an incredible backlog of trail maintenance needs. The GAO estimates the “trail maintenance backlog to be $314 million in fiscal year 2012, with an additional $210 million for annual maintenance, capital improvement, and operations.” National Parks face similar situations. Nationwide, the park service has 11.6 billion in deferred maintenance, including $398.9 million in Washington state.
WTA has long argued for appropriate investment in public lands. Jill Simmons, WTA's executive director, even testified before a U.S. Senate committee last year, advocating for proper funding.
The outdoor recreation economy is powerful part of the overall economy, and it is growing fast—faster than the economy as a whole. We hope this new study gives lawmakers the tools they need to make changes in how public lands are funded and to help the outdoor recreation economy continue to thrive.
More about this report