Lander, the state’s 13th-largest town with 7,500 residents, sits in a river valley in close proximity to an assortment of craggy features — limestone cliffs, pocked boulders, overhanging walls and alpine spires among them.
Each year thousands of climbers spill into Lander explicitly to climb those rocks, pumping $4.5 million in lodging, transportation, retail and food purchases into Fremont County’s economy and supporting 51 jobs with some 37,000 climbing-focused visits.
Those numbers were unveiled this fall in an economic impact study led by Eastern Kentucky University professor James Maples. The report put a concrete value on something climbers in the area have known for a long time, executive director of Central Wyoming Climbers’ Alliance Justin Iskra said: They represent an economic force to be reckoned with.
“This kind of puts us on the map where we can sit down with more and more people and have more important discussions, because we bring in a lot of money to Fremont County,” Iskra said.
Iskra has company in the camp of outdoor recreation advocates flexing their economic muscles. Since late October, a spate of reports has illustrated outdoor recreation’s ever-growing economic impacts. Some are big-picture, showing that Wyoming is among the top U.S. states for outdoor recreation as a percentage of GDP. Some focus on the state, putting a number, for example, on the economic contributions of nonresident snowmobilers in 2020-2021 ($71.4 million). And some are more granular, like the Lander climbing study.
Taken together, industry cheerleaders say, the numbers point to an opportunity for Wyoming to ride the momentum and develop a more robust outdoor recreation sector that aligns with community interests. That could mean everything from pushing Congress to pass federal legislation to galvanizing statehouse support for an outdoor recreation trust fund.
“I think what we are seeing is the inherent value that the outdoor recreation economy has in a state like Wyoming,” Patrick Harrington, manager of the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Office, said in a release. “People across the state are looking towards this industry as a means of economic diversification and vitality for our local and state economies.”
Of the recent reports, the latest Bureau of Economic Analysis statistics measuring the outdoor recreation economy made the biggest splash. BEA numbers showed the outdoor recreation economy accounted for $450 billion of gross domestic product for the U.S. in 2021, or 1.9%. That’s $74 billion more than in 2020 — a 19% increase during a time when the overall U.S. economy saw a 5.9% increase.
Outdoor recreation added $1.49 billion in value to Wyoming’s GDP in 2021, according to BEA — up from $1.25 billion in 2020. At 3.6%, that ranked Wyoming sixth among U.S. states for the share of its economy driven by outdoor rec.
Employment in Wyoming’s sector also saw an increase, from 14,187 to 15,285 jobs, accounting for 5.4% of the state’s total employment. Since 2020, outdoor recreation employment has grown 18.4% in Wyoming, compared with an increase of 13.1% for the United States.
The report’s release was closely followed by new numbers from the Outdoor Foundation that painted a picture of all-time high participation in outdoor recreation. According to the 2022 Outdoor Participation Trends report, in 2021, 164.2 million, or 54%, of Americans ages 6 and over participated in outdoor recreation at least once, “the highest number of participants on record.”
Outdoor Industry Association Research Director Kelly Davis expected a decline, she said. “2020 was huge,” she said. “So I expected it to go down, but it did not. We got an increase of 2.2%.”
This indicates that outdoor recreation is “sticky,” according to Davis — once someone begins to participate, they are likely to continue.
Wyoming-specific reports also provided eyebrow-raising numbers. A 2020-2021 Wyoming Snowmobiler’s Survey concluded that nonresident, resident and outfitter client snowmobilers contributed a total of $193 million in expenditures in the state during that single season. A 2021 Wyoming Off-Road Vehicle Recreation Report prepared for the state, meanwhile, estimated total expenditures associated with resident and nonresident OHV riders at $296 million during 2021.
Leverage, political will
This kind of data arms industry cheerleaders with compelling lobbying arguments for supporting outdoor recreation, advocates said. Because aside from showing economic promise, unprecedented levels of activities on public land have also put growing strain on facilities, trails and resources.
That results in “a responsibility to manage that visitation and economic growth in a way that’s thoughtful, and sustainable and equitable,” said Outdoor Alliance CEO Adam Cramer. His organization has an objective in its sights: America’s Outdoor Recreation Act, a bipartisan bill cosponsored by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming).
The bill aims to improve America’s outdoor recreation economy through steps such as: establishing a pilot program for public-private partnership agreements to modernize campgrounds on federal land; ensuring access to federal lands by increasing opportunities for nonmotorized and motorized access; and ensuring certain recreation opportunities, such as climbing and shooting ranges, on federal lands.
Barrasso’s office did not respond to requests for comments, but he has called the legislation “a monumental achievement for all who enjoy our public lands and shared natural resources.
“It contains numerous provisions to increase access to the outdoors, streamline and simplify agency processes, and improve America’s recreation infrastructure,” Barrasso said, adding the act “will help Americans better enjoy everything Wyoming has to offer.”
Cramer of Outdoor Alliance believes the BEA data offers a nudge for Congress to pass the legislation during the lame duck session.
Things have fallen into place — robust economic data, bipartisan support, intelligent management solutions — to create a precious opportunity, Cramer said.
“I see the stars lining up potentially,” he said. Outdoor Alliance, he said, is focused on educating people that there’s “palpable political will to do something that’s positive, and encourage everybody to remind their lawmakers, ‘this is something that’s pretty cool. It’s pretty positive and it’s gonna result in benefits for everyone.’”
The data could also help push statewide proposals across the finish line, Harrington of the Outdoor Recreation Office told WyoFile. Those include a supplemental budget request for $400,000 for outdoor rec, as well as proposed legislation to create an outdoor recreation trust fund that could be used for awarding grants for outdoor rec infrastructure, among other uses.
Back in Fremont County, Iskra said having solid economic figures is key, “because we can have some of the conversations that … we couldn’t have in the past because we were just kind of dismissed.”
It could help climbers gain an audience with groups like the Fremont County Commission, he said. “I think this just kind of sets the stage for doing a lot more with climbing in Fremont County.”
Caution, cooling off
After Wyoming’s monumental visitation years of 2020-21, the trend appears to be cooling. Yellowstone National Park, which reported a record 4.9 million visitors in 2021, has seen visitation level off — though that could be attributed to destructive floods that closed much of the park. Yellowstone reported 3.2 million visitors through the first 10 months of 2022, compared to 4.8 million at the same point in 2021.
Visitation has also slowed at state parks, which saw enormous increases during the first two years of the pandemic. During a November State Parks and Cultural Resources Commission meeting, Deputy Director Dave Glenn said his office estimates 2022 visitation to be about 4.8 million, which is down about 600,000 from 2021 — but still about 5% above the five-year average.
There is also an undercurrent of caution running through the discussion of Wyoming as an outdoor recreation destination as many hope to avoid overwhelming crowds.
“It’s a fine line, right?” Iskra of Central Wyoming Climbers’ Alliance asked. “You want to bring in money. But … I also want to go climbing and have, you know, a couple of cars in the parking lot. That is the nice thing about Wyoming.”
As participation in the outdoors continues to grow, strategic economic development will be crucial to improving the experience on public lands and taking the edge off overcrowding, Harrington said.
“Our office is really concerned with making sure that all of the growth that occurs statewide … comes from communities,” he said, which is where the statewide network of outdoor rec collaboratives comes in.
His office plans to announce the recipients of the first round of Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Grant Program winners by early 2023, he said. That program will award $14 million in grants for outdoor rec infrastructure projects; it received nearly $72 million in requests after opening its initial round.
Harrington believes that demand, among other evidence, is proof the energy around outdoor rec is here to stay.
“We’re seeing that outdoor recreation is a stable economy, and a significant part of Wyoming’s GDP as a whole,” he said.