Three decades ago, a presidential commission delivered an important message to Americans about their connection to the great outdoors. It described the nation’s parks, waterways and wilderness as “a great health machine, toning up our minds and bodies,” adding that open-air recreation enhanced the country’s “economic health.”
As it turns out, the findings of the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, first published in 1987 during the Reagan Administration, are as relevant today as they were then.
“Public lands affect our hearts and minds,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), who authored a law directing the Department of Commerce to assess the impact of the outdoor industry on job creation and consumer spending. “They also are powerful economic drivers, helping spur a vast outdoor economy. Our policies toward public lands should reflect this.”
Today, Congress is discussing the impact of the outdoor recreation industry. The meeting comes at a time when the environment faces growing threats both from climate change and the Trump Administration. President Trump has moved to open national parks to drilling, and this week he ordered the Interior Department to review monument designations with the idea of opening protected lands to farming, ranching or fossil fuel exploration.
The congressional hearing, held by the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on digital commerce and consumer protection, is expected to take up the fate of the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act, or REC, signed into law last fall by President Obama. It calls for a study on the effects of outdoor recreation on the U.S. economy.
It has been difficult to calculate the contribution of outdoor recreation to the economy because “this is an industry that is diverse and hard to describe in actual terms,” said Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition, who was a member of the Reagan-era presidential commission. “For example, what percentage of gas sales are triggered by people who are driving to national parks? It requires some economic assessment.”
Nevertheless, earlier this week, the Outdoor Industry Association released a report which says that outdoor recreational activities promote $887 billion annually in consumer spending, support 7.6 million American jobs and generate an estimated $65 billion in federal taxes and $59 billion in state and local tax revenues every year.
Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine offers a prime example. The nearly 90,000 acres of mountains and wilderness were designated a U.S. National Monument during the Obama Administration, despite the vigorous opposition from Republican governor Paul LePage, who complained it happened without state approval. Now, the land is supporting the local economy.
“It’s under the gun with Republicans, [but] this park already is revitalizing the local community in a region hard hit by paper mill closings and depressed job markets,” said Tony Donovan, who chairs the executive committee of the Maine chapter of the Sierra Club. “New businesses are opening. Motels are getting booked. Restaurants are doing better, and all this is going on before the first full summer season.”
Sierra Maine recently hosted a cross-country ski and snowshoe tour of the monument, “and found it to be one of the most pristine areas in the continental United States,” Donovan said. “It is absolutely clear that the health and wealth of people in this area will get a boost. It is certain to help in keeping community families here, and in attracting new ones.”
The Small Business Majority, a nonprofit advocacy group, recently released a report that showed that national monuments strengthen local economies by drawing visitors who stay for several days and spend money locally. Such expenditures “are especially important in rural areas where local economies and small businesses may be particularly reliant on income derived from tourism and outdoor recreation,” the report said.
Beyond its value as an economic driver, however, numerous studies conducted in recent years have shown the immense value of outdoor recreation on physical and mental health.
In fact, one reason for the 1987 report “was a reaction to the growing understanding that Americans were turning to more sedentary lifestyles,” Crandall said. “One of the reasons we stressed trails and waterways was to get people into physical activity that is so important to healthy lifestyles.”
For this reason, experts believe it is important to protect these areas, not just federal lands, wilderness and waterways, but local parks as well. “The savings in healthcare costs from having such areas far outweigh the cost of providing them,” said Geoffrey Godbey, a professor in the department of recreation, park and tourism management at Pennsylvania State University. “The majority of the public uses local government recreation and park services, and thinks they are worth the cost.
“People move their bodies more outdoors than indoors, and are less likely to be sitting,” he added. “They engage in walking, hiking, running, swimming, paddling and many more forms of exercise. Also, they are less likely to be eating snack food.”
Godbey, who authored a 2009 paper documenting the health benefits of the great outdoors, said that exposure to nature also lowers stress levels, “simply from being in that setting, almost regardless of what one does. It appears that the simple act of viewing nature contributes to wellness. Being outdoors seems to restore the ability to concentrate and direct one’s focus.”
Furthermore, sharing outdoor activities can inspire personal closeness, Godbey said. “Many outdoor experiences involve socializing with others in ways that do not happen in other settings,” he says. “This may strengthen social relations and produce new forms of bonding.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.