Hiking (courtesy by Kelsey Dayton click to enlarge)

Outdoor recreation is on the rise, but access is limited

by Kelsey Dayton
— June 03, 2014

This spring, the Absaroka Outdoor Fellowship led a series of hikes in Cody. The first outings, marketed as beginner friendly, drew more than 50 participants each, a mix of novice and experienced hikers ranging in ages from 5 to 79. The next trips involved longer drives to the trail head and were designed for more experienced hikers and still drew more than 20 people.

Kelsey Dayton

“Which is huge,” said Wes Allen, an owner of Sunlight Sports in Cody who volunteered to help with the hikes. In the last eight months, Allen has seen business in his store increase by margins in double digits, a trend reflected by an increase in overall outdoor recreation in the United States.

A record 142.6 million people participated in at least one outdoor activity in 2013, according to the Outdoor Industry Association’s latest yearly recreation participation report released in May. The most popular activities are jogging, running and trail running, fishing, bicycling, hiking and camping.

Those activities can generate big business. The report ranked fishing as one of the most popular activities people do outside. There are more than 40 million anglers in the United States, and fishing supports more than 800,000 jobs, said Mike Nussman, president and CEO of the American Sportfishing Association. Money from taxes, licenses and donations provides more than $1 billion to fisheries conservation efforts.

Sunlight Sports in Cody has seen more people interested in getting out hiking. (courtesy of Kelsey Dayton click to enlarge)

But, while the numbers of outdoor recreators is growing, the accessibility of public lands is the biggest threat facing the outdoor industry, according to panelists at a discussion about the state of recreation at the Outdoor Writers Association of America’s conference May 25 in McAllen, Texas.

“If someone has to drive more than 40 minutes to go shooting, they won’t go,” said panelist Steve Sanetti, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

More participation

While the actual number of people who played outdoors increased in 2013, the percentage of the American population who participated in at least one outdoor activity dipped slightly, from 49.4 percent in 2012 to 49.2 percent in 2013, according to the Outdoor Industry Association’s report.

But, the statistics measure how many people got outside only once in the year, so the bar is pretty low, said Adam Cramer, executive director of the Outdoor Alliance, which promotes human powered recreation. The report showed that about 25 percent of the population gets out at least twice a week to recreate, or between 35 to 40 million people.

There also isn’t a single conventional demographic that doesn’t participate in outdoor recreation in some capacity, Cramer said.

Stand up paddleboarding had some of the biggest gains in participants during the last three years according to a study on participation in the outdoors. (courtesy of Kelsey Dayton click to enlarge)

In the last three years, the biggest gains have been in adventure racing, triathlons and stand-up paddle boarding. Stand-up paddle boarding, kayak fishing and whitewater kayaking made the biggest gains over the last year.

At Allen’s shop in Cody, he’s seen an increase in people interested in hiking and Nordic skiing.

“The worse the economy is, the more people usually go hiking,” he said. Yet even with an economic upturn, Allen is seeing more customers earlier in the season, which he thinks is indicative of people eager to get outside.

Resources have improved, making it easier for people to get outside. There are remote backcountry experiences, but also trails easily accessible from town for a lunch-hour hike. There are also what Cramer calls the “curated outdoors,” with town parks creating opportunities to play outside in urban centers. It’s easier to rent needed equipment, eliminating the financial barriers associated with trying new outdoor sports.

Technology has also supported outdoor recreation with cameras, like Go Pros, and apps, like Strava, which allow people to share their experiences outside.

Most people support recreation, whether it’s riding a mountain bike, or horse or ATV. It’s why people choose to live in Wyoming, Allen said.

Risks to access

Yet industry proponents keep careful watch on issues that could threaten the continued growth of recreation, specifically development of public lands near roads.

Most types of recreation need partnerships between federal, state and local governments, Nussman said. Hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits happen most often on public lands.

“We need to come to grips with the idea that we have partners that are not as agile as we’d like them to be, and they control many of the places,” he said.

Places like the Teton Ice Park in Jackson allow people a chance to experienced outdoor recreation in urban areas. (courtesy by Kelsey Dayton click to enlarge)

With a worry about access comes a need for action from sportsmen and recreation enthusiasts. Complacency in the outdoor community is a problem, said Whit Fosburgh, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Part of the problem is the dispersal of the outdoor community. Outdoor recreation encompasses so many user groups — some who find themselves at odds with each other on certain issues — that the industry doesn’t have the political clout of other interest groups.

With a mostly urbanized congress, lawmakers either don’t realize or don’t care about what sportsmen value, Fosburgh said. While Second Amendment issues are well-advocated for, they don’t often encompass conservation issues, like protecting mule deer or trout populations. Protecting recreation opportunities means emphasizing the economics to lawmakers.

“We need the same mentality (the NRA takes), that an attack on conservation anywhere is an attack on everybody,” Fosburgh said. “The outdoor economy is (no longer) the poor stepchild of oil and gas extraction. These are home-grown jobs that are never going to be exported to China.”

Still, Fosburgh sees positive changes in land management. The Bureau of Land Management is changing the way it plans for development and focusing on mitigation. There’s a movement to more thoughtful development that allows for grazing, recreation, mining and timber harvesting. “You can have it all,” he said. “You just have to think about it and plan it.”

Allen, the Cody sports shop owner, agrees: “One of the awesome things about living in Wyoming is that there are a lot of places where you can get in the car, drive 15 minutes, get on the trail and, a few miles later, you feel you are really out there. If you want people to get out and get active outdoors, you have to have places that are easy to get to.”

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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