Hikers in Shenandoah National Park. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture began planning this month to develop outdoor recreation opportunities near national forests and grasslands, part of a broader Biden administration push to help communities reap economic rewards from the growing recreation sector.
Three USDA agencies — the U.S. Forest Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture and Office of Rural Development — signed a memorandum of understanding last fall pledging to collaborate on plans to develop outdoor recreation economies in “gateway communities” near national forests and grasslands, according to a Jan. 19 press release.
The agency selected its final team to begin developing the first annual plan in mid-January, a Rural Development spokesperson said. The spokesperson declined to be identified by name.
“We know that when we invest in rural and tribal communities and people, we create an economic ripple effect that benefits everyone,” the spokesperson said in a written statement to States Newsroom.
Many of the rural communities near national forests and grasslands have experienced significant economic downturns in recent years. The multi-agency effort is meant to help those communities harness the economic power of outdoor recreation.
“We want to be intentional about making sure that they are getting economic, social and physical benefits,” said Toby Bloom, the national program manager for travel, tourism and interpretation with the Forest Service.
Some communities may have been reliant on a large employer that closed, forcing people to find work elsewhere and leading to a shrinking workforce that discourages further investment, Bloom said.
“If we can address that vicious cycle by creating opportunities, creating jobs, there’s a huge amount of jobs that are generated by recreation every year,” she added.
Bloom highlighted a mountain biking trail network near Ironton, Ohio, as an example of a community reorienting its economy around outdoor recreation tourism.
The USDA program is an acknowledgement from the government about the clear economic benefits of the outdoor recreation sector for rural areas, said Chris Perkins, senior director for the industry and nonprofit coalition group Outdoor Recreation Roundtable.
“What this partnership will do is just make the process of economic development around outdoor recreation a possibility for more communities,” Perkins said. “That will help demystify the process. And it will help them access funding and take on challenges before they arise.”
The great outdoors: a booming economic sector
Funding for the initiative will come from existing USDA grant, loan and service programs, though specific figures have not been set, the Rural Development spokesperson said.
The spokesperson added that the agencies will prioritize projects that advance Biden administration goals to address climate change, environmental justice, racial equity and improved market opportunities.
Bloom explained that this is the first time the partnership will push recreation opportunities as projects for funding.
“Previously, we never thought about using a recreation lens,” Bloom said. “And we’re seeing now what an important piece of the economy it is.”
The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis found that outdoor recreation produced $454 billion in economic activity, accounting for 1.9% of the nation’s gross domestic product in 2021. The agency also found that employment in outdoor recreation grew by 13.1% from 2020 to 2021. The sector supports close to 6.1 million jobs directly nationwide, according to the USDA.
Interest in outdoor activity is only accelerating, Perkins said. The sector grew at three times the rate of the larger U.S. economy last year, as people turned to the outdoors as a tool for physical and mental health, he added.
Rural communities close to public lands also tend to have a lower tax base, as no one is building on the land, Bloom said.
“This is really an attempt to help those communities that are near public lands and water capitalize on the financial opportunities that exist,” the program manager said. “Yes, you may have a smaller tax base, but you have these recreation amenities that have the potential to generate as much, if not even more, income.”
COVID-19 highlighted the importance of outdoor recreation, Bloom said. The pandemic’s early months saw an explosion in outdoor recreation. And while some rural communities handled the influx of tourists effectively, others were left scrambling to accommodate the jump in visitor numbers, she said.
“It’s kind of like America rediscovered its outdoors,” Bloom said. “And so as federal agencies, we need to help both the visitors have their best peak experience and also help those communities that are receiving visitors be able to manage that visitation and also benefit from it.”
The roots of the USDA initiative
President Barack Obama launched the Federal Interagency Council on Outdoor Recreation in 2011. The council, made up of representatives from USDA and the departments of Interior, Commerce and Defense, conducted the country’s first wide-scale economic analysis of the recreation economy.
Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, disbanded the council when he took office in 2017.
The Biden administration reestablished the council last summer, laying the groundwork for the renewed partnership, Bloom said.
The council helped raise the recreation sector’s profile with politicians, Bloom said, setting the stage for the USDA agencies to bring their own expertise to the project.
‘Open the faucet’
The agencies will help communities plan to create or enhance outdoor recreation opportunities. They will also provide funding for development programs and help communities apply for federal grants.
As the agencies develop their annual plans, an emphasis will be on “sustainable growth,” according to the release. That means helping the local outdoors sectors grow at a pace the communities can handle, while also keeping in mind resilience to climate change and natural disasters.
“Anybody who opens their eyes has seen the impact of natural disasters on our country,” Bloom said. “We really need to start thinking about how we are going to approach recreation, knowing that we have these challenges ahead of us.”
Priorities for the first plan will include development of affordable housing around gateway communities and giving more opportunities for people of color, low-income residents and members of the LGBTQ community to visit outdoor recreation spaces.
“The communities that do best in developing these recreation economies are the ones that have everyone at the table,” Perkins said. “So many people are craving recreation right now, it’s tough to close that faucet. But if you can think about how you want to open the faucet and invite people to your community, and the messaging you want to share with them about how to be a responsible visitor, that’s where this work really benefits everyone.”
The program is already attracting attention from state-based groups such as the Alaska Outdoors Association and other agencies within the Forest Service, she said.
The program’s goal is to boost both environmental stewardship and economic benefit, Bloom said.
“You can’t ask people to decide between putting food on the table and conserving nature,” she said. “But if I can help somebody put food on the table by conserving nature, that’s a success for me.”
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