The Outdoor Recreation Industry Could be the Most Impactful Near-Trillion-Dollar Industry in America


Outdoor recreation is big business in the United States, but until last year, the collective economic impact of the outdoor recreation industry was unknown. That changed in February, 2018, when The Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis calculated the outdoor recreation industry’s annual gross output to be $734 billion, a contribution of 2.2 percent to the U.S. GDP. This contribution surpasses numerous other large economic sectors, including mining, utilities, chemical products and manufacturing industries.

What’s more, as the creator of 7.6 million jobs, the outdoor recreation sector generates employment figures similar to those of other major job creators in the United States, including hospitals, transportation and warehousing, and educational services. The report also showed the outdoor recreation industry GDP has increased an average of 4.4 percent since 2012, significantly greater than the 3.6 percent average increase in the overall U.S. GDP over that time.

There’s a reason that the collective economic impact of the outdoor recreation industry was only released for the first time in 2018; historically, outdoor industry leaders focused on how they disagreed more than how they agreed regarding land use, public access and land management issues. For example, the Outdoor Industry Association has championed human-powered recreation, while the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association has represented and grown the market for vehicle-supported outdoor experiences.

“What’s become very apparent is the fact that we are all serving one consumer,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association and past president of the Outdoor Industry Association. “People do a wide variety of outdoor activities; the consumer’s definitely not contained to one industry.”

Whether they hunt, fish, or backpack, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, and no matter their age, today’s outdoor recreation consumers have one thing in common: they want memorable experiences. Memorable experiences are the products produced by the collective outdoor recreation industry. And, like any industry, those products need to be modernized and improved.

The most impactful way to do that is to get on the radar of the U.S. Government, the manager of the country’s public recreation lands and waters. Washington has largely ignored the outdoor recreation industry because, until last year, its collective economic contribution hadn’t been known, and its voice was fragmented. But the multi-industry trade organization, the Outdoor Rec Roundtable, is comprised of leaders from multiple outdoor industries united by one goal: growing the outdoor recreation economy.

This alignment is happening at a critical time: America’s public recreation lands and waterways currently have a maintenance backlog of $11 billion-plus dollars. For this reason, ORR’s focus is on funding for infrastructure improvements and ongoing maintenance to improve the quality and quantity of consumer experiences.

ORR is calling for support from Federal and State governments, and the private sector. Controversial, yes, but when considering the $11 billion maintenance backlog and the fact that the ORR must work with a Federal legislature whose budget office is expecting a $1 trillion dollar deficit through 2022, a new approach makes sense.

ORR’s leadership drove the creation of the Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account (ORSA) on the economic contribution of outdoor recreation. Additionally, ORR issued a formal call to action during the 2018 National Governors Association meeting, for all 50 states to establish an Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (OREC).

To date, thirteen Offices of outdoor recreation exist, in Colorado, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, New Mexico, Washington, Wyoming and several other states. These offices are instrumental to creating progress in advancing the growth agenda of the outdoor recreation industry, and in bringing a national-level voice to the outdoor recreation economy.

“Whether your favorite activity is kayaking on a river, riding an ATV on sand dunes, jogging on a trail or hunting on a refuge—recreating on public lands and waters is good for the mind, body and soul,” said past Secretary Zinke in a April, 2018 Department of the Interior press release. “And it is also incredibly vital to local economies who rely on recreation spending to help create jobs.”

This vital segment of the U.S. economy brings jobs and revenue to national and local economies, all while delivering an improved quality of life for Americans. Beyond that, the expansion of outdoor recreation preserves the incredible public lands and waterway destinations of America. More and more of us are falling in love with these magical places and the experiences we’re having in them, and people protect what they love.