By Martin Kidston
Each year in Montana, outdoor recreation generates billions of dollars in consumer spending and provides $1.5 billion in wages and salaries.
On a national scale, the economic impacts aren’t fully known, though a bill by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines could change that.
Signed into law this week, the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act looks to better inform policymakers and business leaders on money spent and the jobs created by the outdoor recreation economy.
Such impacts have never been measured by the federal government, Daines said.
“Montana is well-known for our world-class outdoor recreation that is critical to our state’s economy,” said Daines, R-Montana. “This legislation will help us better understand the economic impact of outdoor recreation and the good-paying jobs it supports.”
The act was supported by more than 60 organizations and businesses, including the Outdoor Industry Association and the U.S. Travel Association.
It was also lauded by the Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, which continues to study the recreation habits of state visitors.
Norma Nickerson, director of the institute, said Montana attracts 11 million visitors each year. In surveys, visitors say they’ve come to Montana to enjoy the state’s attractions, including its mountains, forests and rivers.
“They’re not just looking at them, they’re playing,” said Nickerson. “It saddens me that it’s not been an area of national discussion. There are studies out there now saying how nature helps you make better decisions. These kinds of studies are showing that we better pay attention to what the outdoors has to offer.”
Within the state, 71 percent of Montana residents participate in outdoor recreation each year. But it’s the state’s 11 million annual visitors who generate the bulk of the economic activity.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation in Montana generates $5.8 billion in consumer spending each year, and provides $1.5 billion in wages and salaries. It also provides $403 million in state and local tax revenue.
“What’s important, they’re coming here spending their time, and when they spend time, they have to eat, try our local breweries and spend a night somewhere,” Nickerson said. “All of those things trickle down to the basic things people living here use as well. As residents, we can’t support it all ourselves.”
A 2014 report conducted by the institute found that nonresident travelers spent $236.4 million in Missoula County, placing it fifth in the state. Gallatin County led the category with $666.8 million in nonresident traveler spending, followed by Flathead, Yellowstone and Cascade counties.
Visitation to the state’s national parks has increased each of the past three years, topping 7 million this year. While the parks may serve as a destination, Nickerson said visitors spend money along the way.
“If you just take the national parks and look at the gateway communities, they’re all about outdoor recreation,” she said. “But our visitors do all these other things along the way, and it goes way beyond the gateway communities.”
Daines said the U.S. Department of the Interior in April directed the Federal Recreation Council to work with the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis to assess the economic impact of the outdoor recreation industry.
Before the announcement, Daines said, the federal government had never measured the impact of outdoor recreation on the nation’s economy.
The Outdoor Industry Association calls the sector an overlooked economic giant, one that generates $646 billion a year in consumer spending and ranks only behind financial services and outpatient health care.
Given such numbers, Nickerson said it’s wise to take a deeper look at the benefits of the nation’s outdoor recreation economy and the role its wild places play in supporting jobs.
“I would think the majority of the reason people live in Montana is because of their access and ability to enjoy our outdoors,” said Nickerson. “It’s a quality-of-life thing we have in Montana that they don’t have in a lot of other places. It’s really important to a certain segment of people.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org