When the U.S. National Park Service turned 100 years old in 2015, the country’s tourism agency—Brand USA—launched the Great Outdoors campaign to draw more park visitors.
As part of the initiative, Robert Redford narrated a new Imax film, National Parks Adventure, while Brand USA also launched an eight-part TV series, a global advertising campaign, and educational programs for the travel trade industry.
Looking at the numbers, the campaign was a success, generating $3 billion in visitor spending and $6.6 billion in total economic activity, including more than 44,000 jobs, according to Brand USA.
Over the past decade, tourism professionals and government officials have come to realize the growing economic power of recreation on public lands. The success of the Brand USA campaign underscores that.
In Washington D.C., lawmakers are paying more attention to the ways outdoor tourism produces substantial revenues for federal, state and local governments, while also supporting millions of jobs.
"We’re 180 degrees from where we used to be when the outdoor industry wasn’t seen as important," said Gordon Seabury, CEO of Toad&Co and board chair of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA).
Across the country, state tourism departments are launching campaigns that highlight outdoor destinations, while governors are creating new offices to manage recreation on public lands.
Even with all of this momentum, public lands and recreation could face challenges in the near future, when Donald Trump takes office. According to widespread news reports and statements he’s made himself, Trump could make significant changes to funding for public lands and modify the status of national monuments. However, experts say it’s hard to predict what will happen.
Conquering the Hill
For a century, Americans have flocked to the country’s parks and forests, but only recently have federal and state agencies shined a spotlight on public lands and tourism.
This is largely because the explosion of the outdoors industry has gradually opened lawmakers’ eyes to the political and economic benefits of protecting wild places and promoting recreation. Since the late 1990s, members of the outdoors industry have met with lawmakers in Washington D.C. to press their concerns, but they largely struggled to gain traction.
"For multiple years, the reception in D.C. was that we were just tree-hugger activists," said Seabury, who has participated in OIA’s Capitol Summit lobbying effort for at least 10 years.
In 2012, OIA made significant progress when it showed members of Congress the study titled, "The Outdoor Recreation Economy," which revealed that outdoor recreation is a $646 billion industry that supports 6.1 million jobs, nearly $40 billion in federal tax revenue and more than $39 billion in state and local tax revenue.
"One of the real breakthroughs was to change the conversation so that it wasn’t just about public lands in the purest sense, but about how the economic engine of our recreation economy translates to jobs and tax revenue," said Seabury.
He and other industry leaders now have access to influential Democrats and Republicans in Congress. This winter, OIA’s years of hard work paid off big time with the passage of the Outdoor REC Act, which directs the Secretary of Commerce to assess and analyze the U.S. outdoor recreation economy.
This Land is Tour Land
While OIA has gained support in D.C., its economic study also turned heads in state governments across the country. From Virginia to Utah, governors have directed their tourism bureaus to highlight ways to play on public lands.
In the fall of 2013, the Utah Office of Tourism challenged state residents to visit Utah’s "Mighty Five" parks—Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion—within a year. To promote the challenge, tourism officials splashed amazing park images across websites, magazine pages, TV screens and digital billboards, costing them millions of dollars.
Market research by an independent firm showed that Mighty 5 advertising influenced about 374,000 travelers who visited Utah, according to Visit Utah. And for every dollar invested in the campaign, the return to the state in actual booked travel was $5.90.
In 2014, the Oregon Tourism Commission launched a $3 million marketing campaign titled "The 7 Wonders of Oregon," featuring the Oregon Coast, Mt. Hood, the Columbia River Gorge, Crater Lake, the Painted Hills, the Wallowas and Smith Rock.
"Tourism is a primary driver of Oregon’s economy," said Todd Davidson, CEO of Travel Oregon, noting that tourism generates $193 in new visitor spending for every $1 invested in domestic campaigns.
States Step Up Their Game
As states have emphasized outdoor tourism, they’ve realized they need specific departments to manage recreation on public lands.
In 2013, Utah Governor Gary Herbert created Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation to run the state’s $5.8 billion recreation economy.
"Working in the governor’s office allows us to talk with a lot of different stakeholders, whether it’s a university program running outdoor rec trips on federal lands or a guide or outfitter," said Tom Adams, director of Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation. “We’re a conduit for collaboration.”
Across the country, states are establishing similar offices. In 2015, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper set up an Office of Economic Development and International Trade. In October, Wyoming’s governor announced a new outdoor recreation task force, while North Carolina and several Northeastern states have discussed creating recreation offices.
The Ripple Effect
It’s no surprise that states are eager to invest in recreation departments, considering how tourism ripples through all sectors of a local economy. When you include spending at restaurants, hotels, gas stations, entertainment venues, and retail stores, travel-related spending is a whopping $524.8 billion per year, according to OIA’s 2012 report.
That puts money directly in the pockets of local businesses like outdoor retailers and outfitters. In Knoxville, Tenn., River Sports Outfitters boosted its bottom line by operating a boat and bike rental operation at the six-year-old Urban Wilderness in the heart of the city. Covering 1,000 acres, the Urban Wilderness includes a quarry lake and 42 miles of trails for hiking, biking and trail running.
River Sports owner Ed McAlister said the thriving concession not only provides additional revenue for his business, but also helps expand his customer base.
"The big thing is we’re exposing people to an event they might not have done otherwise. And if they enjoy it, they become a potential customer," said McAlister.
While trails attract tourists and their dollars, they also improve local quality of life. When a place is perceived as being healthy, it attracts corporations and new residents. In the West, this is especially important, as towns are transitioning away from extractive industries and diversifying their economies, said Chris Mehl of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont.
In 2014, Headwaters studied how public lands affect surrounding communities and concluded that "Western counties with national parks, monuments, or other permanent protections on federal land, support above-average rates of job growth and are correlated with higher levels of per capita income."
While outdoor recreation does plenty of good for our country, the landscape surrounding public lands and recreation could soon change, depending on what happens with a new presidential administration.
The Trump Effect
"Under Trump, we’re looking at budget cuts and a more fiscally conservative domestic discretionary budget, which is typically not good for public lands," said Jessica Wahl of OIA. She’s concerned that Trump could slash the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses revenue from offshore oil and gas development to fund conservation and recreation projects in local communities.
Perhaps an even bigger concern is that the federal government might modify the designations of several national monuments and transfer ownership of federal lands to states, which could open the door for logging, mining and drilling.
In its platform, the Republican National Committee urged Congress to pass legislation "requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states."
On its website, the Trump transition team states that it will encourage the production of fossil fuel resources "by opening onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands and waters."
But Seabury of Toad&Co pointed out that outdoor advocates and extractive industries are wrestling over a small percentage of the country’s federal land. Sure, Trump could affect a few recreation areas, but outdoor tourism as a whole could crank right along.
Despite all of this, cities will continue to build trails, as these efforts often involve local control and funding initiatives at the municipal or state level. "The rate of trails being added might slow, but it’s not going to be reversed," said Mehl.
Let’s not forget the recreation economy has plenty of fans on both sides of the aisle, added Wahl. "A lot of Republicans realize that selling off public lands is one of the worst things you can do for jobs."
It’s also important to remember a significant social trend becoming more and more prevalent throughout the USA: To feel happy, citizens are seeking adventures rather than material things.
"People are investing in experiences," said Seabury. “That means travel and tourism — and more recreation.”
Originally written for RootsRated Media.