Is the Outdoor Recreation Boom Too Good to Be True?

This essay on the complexities of the outdoor recreation economy is the last piece in the “Commons for Whom?” series, which investigates the role of identity, ethnicity, accessibility, and coloniality in the politics of the commons. Inspired by the ASLE + AESS 2023 conference theme “Reclaiming the Commons,” our series “Commons for Whom?” especially engages the implicit “we” in calls to reclaim common, public, and outdoor spaces. “Commons for Whom?” is a collaborative, cross-platform series, published across Edge EffectsNiCHE, and Correspondences. Series editors: Addie Hopes (NiCHE), Ben Iuliano (Edge Effects), Rebecca Laurent (Edge Effects), Weishun Lu (Edge Effects), Kelly McKisson (Correspondences), and Richelle Wilson (Edge Effects).

On a Forest Service road fifteen minutes from the town of Salida, Colorado, the sun set a sherbet orange against dark clouds. My partner and I sat next to our tent, sipping beers, tired from a long day kayaking the Arkansas River. As we watched the sunset change from orange to pink, we sat in amicable silence, happy to have found a dispersed campsite that our Prius could access. Occasionally, another car or truck would pass, headed further up the road to more dispersed camping on public land. We slept soundly that night and, as we were on vacation, aimed to sleep late.

Our blissful sleep was interrupted, however, early the next morning as vehicles began driving down the windy canyon road one after another at 6:30 am. In the early morning light, it dawned on us; unlike us, most of our fellow campers were not on vacation. For many, the public lands surrounding Salida were home, and the daily commute for these regional workers had begun.  

Salida, like many other small towns adjacent to high quality natural and recreational amenities, is facing a housing crisis. Natural beauty attracts highly paid remote workers, wealthy second-home owners, and countless tourists, but the teachers, restaurant workers, and outdoor guides who make the town function are quickly priced out. The same pattern is playing out in myriad communities: Moab, Utah; Jackson, Wyoming; Aspen, Colorado; Lake Tahoe, California. 

Calm river flowing with smooth rocks in the foreground, and trees with green and yellow leaves in the background
A section of the Arkansas River in the Browns Canyon National Monument, located in Chaffee County near the town of Salida, Colorado. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management, 2014.

Once industrial boom towns are today transitioning or have transitioned away from extractive industries, such as mining, toward tourism as a primary source of economic development. The outdoor recreation economy (ORE) is presented by industry and state leaders as the “economy of the future,” an untapped force of economic potential that can facilitate a variety of social and environmental benefits. Boosters of the ORE suggest that the sector may even be the foundation of thriving rural communities in the future. However, further examination of the industry, and its foundational premises, call this into question.

The Work Behind the Play

The ORE offers a seductive economic strategy for such places as Salida. Economically, the ORE is booming. In 2021, the outdoor recreation economy accounted for 2% of current gross domestic product (GDP) in the United States—454 billion dollars—and employed 4.3 million people. Compared to the U.S. economy in general, the ORE is growing rapidly. In 2021, GDP for ORE increased 18.9%, compared to 5.9% for the overall U.S. economy. Next to pictures of snow-capped mountains, dreamy forest sunsets, and tents set-up under starry nights, these soaring economic figures are excitedly shared on outdoor industry advocacy and trade websites, state recreation offices, and vocational institutes. Since 2013, nearly two dozen state offices of outdoor recreation have been created, aiming to leverage the power of this sector in the economic sphere. 

From industry websites such as the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR) or the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), one may think that this multibillion-dollar economic sector is built on people like me kayaking, hiking, biking, snowmobiling, or RVing our ways through scenic little towns in far-flung places. In an upbeat advertisement from ORR, the narrator explains the outdoor recreation economy as “a little less Zoom, a little more vroom” as mountain bikes and dirt bikes fly off jumps. The narrator continues, describing the outdoor recreation economy as “good for our health” and “great for our local economies” as the camera pans over a rural mountain town at sunset. 

While the industry is predicated on leisure for the consumer, it requires significant labor from the worker.

Yet, the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s factsheet shows that nearly half of the ORE’s multi-billion-dollar GDP relies, in fact, on “supporting” industries, comprising restaurants, lodging, shopping, transportation, and construction.  Of the $454 billion in GDP,  just $5 billion, or 1.1%, was created from climbing, tent camping, and hiking. Bicycling contributed $3.3 billion, just 0.7%.  Hunting and fishing did a little better, with 3.6%. Primarily, ORE value derives from retail goods sold. My kayaking road trip underscores the efficacy of this strategy, as I buy a river map ($19.95), groceries ($58.37), gas ($30.92), and new river shoes ($49.09) from local stores over the course of a few hours. 

Despite what the aesthetic images of open wilderness in advertisements and reports about local recreation jobs might suggest, over half of the ORE workforce exists indoors—33% are employed in the retail trade sector and 19% in accommodation and food services.  While 20% of the ORE workers work in “arts, entertainment, and recreation,” what this entails is unclear. Jobs in agriculture, hunting, fishing, and forestry make up only 2% of the ORE, combined. In my experience, while restaurant workers serving the trail-weary certainly understand the connections between recreation tourism and their jobs, they do not consider themselves part of the outdoor recreation workforce. 

This underscores a central tension to the industry: it is not always clear what the “outdoor recreation economy” means. Where does outdoor recreation, the leisure activity, end and when does outdoor recreation, the industry, begin? Who decides? The consumers, the workers, the companies? The strategically vague definition of “outdoor recreation economy” allows some business owners, policy makers, and consumers to wholeheartedly indulge in the fantasy that this is a sector with great (financial) gains and minimal (if any) harm.

Outdoor shops crowd the streets of downtown Jackson, Wyoming. Image by AI_HikesAZ, 2008.

A variety of companies and industries claim membership or association with the outdoor recreation industry. For example,  “lifestyle audio brand” Skullcandy, “born on a chairlift in Park City, UT” flirts with inclusion in the industry, as its line-up of product ambassadors alternate between musicians and outdoor athletes. Distribution giant Amazon is one of ten companies (including REI, LL Bean, and Patagonia) that serve as the OIA’s “Thrive Outside” community partners. High-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles facilitate outdoor recreation when they drive over mountain passes, but those same vehicles are simply transportation when driven to the grocery store.

Even as towns such as Salida, Moab, Jackson, and Lake Tahoe face housing crises, workforce shortages, and woes regarding natural resources being “loved to death,” the push to develop the outdoor recreation economy remains.

The ORE, in its current conceptualization, is based on consumer goods. These goods are part of vast global supply chains reliant on the extraction of oil, aluminum, and timber. Similarly, many outdoor products require the use of harsh chemicals. For example, per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS)—forever chemicals—are applied to waterproof rain jackets. Additionally, gear from outdoor brands is often produced in exploitative sweatshops

Some efforts are underway to correct these practices that seemingly go against the industry’s implied ethos of protecting nature. The industry recognizes this dissonance, with OIA, the leading outdoor recreation trade group, stating: “If we don’t carve a new, bold path for our industry and others to follow, we will ultimately fail to protect the outdoor experience upon which we all depend.” However, the growth of the ORE, as it presently exists, threatens the outdoor experience on which it depends. 

Is the ORE great for the local economies of towns like Salida? It’s hard to say. The industry emphasizes its reliance on public lands and its deep connections to the natural world; however, its main economic contributions stem from supporting activities. At the end of the day, the outdoor recreation economy seems to be an adventure and nature-themed clothing, restaurant, hotel, car, and airline franchise, rather than a cogent economic sector. While the ORE may offer economic development for some communities, it’s clear that it also facilitates and reinforces both distal and proximate labor and resource exploitation. 

Yet, even as towns such as Salida, Moab, Jackson, and Lake Tahoe face housing crises, workforce shortages, and woes regarding natural resources being “loved to death,” the push to develop the outdoor recreation economy remains. 

A Culture of Fun, for the Privileged

Part of the challenge of understanding the outdoor recreation industry and its broader implications is that for the leisure participant, outdoor recreation represents a culture of fun. Leisure—fun—is often described as the opposite of work. Outdoor recreation—play—allows the leisure class to contend with nature in a way that mimics work. By doing labor for lifestyle versus livelihood, a participant can gain the benefits of labor with the land while forgoing the risk associated with traditional land labor. 

Ski resorts like this one in Olympic Valley are sites of labor and leisure. Photo by Shawn Powar, 2023.

Play mediates nature through a lens of control and keeps nature at a distance, all the while giving the participant a sense of deep connection to the land.  Yet the outdoor recreation industry is ultimately an industry: it is labor, it is livelihood. While the industry is predicated on leisure for the consumer, it requires significant labor from the worker.

Furthermore, the foundations of outdoor recreation, the leisure activity, explicitly excluded many. As the Western expansion of the frontier and manifest destiny met their violent maximum, outdoor recreation developed as a bourgeois response to modernization and technological change. Outdoor recreation developed as people longed for a connection to land, as fossil fuels and rapidly developing technologies allowed increased emotional and bodily distance from land.  However, those who could participate in outdoor recreation in its earliest days were primarily economically privileged, able-bodied white men who reinforced outdoor recreation as a sphere for those sharing similar identities. 

Early American outdoor recreation offered a space to not only contend with feelings of alienation regarding work in nature, but also to demonstrate manliness.  The development of outdoor recreation was facilitated by the land dispossession and genocide of Native people; at the turn of the twentieth century, economically privileged white men were called by the frontier’s promise of newness, adventure, and danger since these were noticeably absent from the privileged spheres in which they typically engaged. 

While today’s participants in outdoor recreation are a large and heterogeneous group, associations of the outdoors with wealthy, white men persist. More specifically, outdoor recreation carries associations of exclusion; of saving places here for the detriment of places over there; of expanding and deregulating in the name of access; of contending excitedly with dangers, real or perceived, as an exercise rather than a necessity; of ignoring and desecrating sacred Native land in the pursuit of leisure. These persistent associations have real implications on who has access, who feels welcome, and how policies are developed in relation to outdoor recreation—both the leisure activity and the industry. The ORE may market the outdoors as a space for personal well-being and rejuvenation, but it is more complicated. And it is imperative to understand these fundamental cultural foundations and how they may affect industrial development. 

Industrial Recreation

For many rural communities, community and economic development remains challenging. From “brain drain” in some places to gentrification in others, rural communities are faced with challenges that outpace and outsize their ability to implement solutions. The $862 billion outdoor recreation industry is offered as a panacea for rural communities, especially those which have lost other core industrial foundations. Yet after delving into the ORE, it is hard to align the glossy photos of people playing outside with the harsher realities of the ORE’s economic and cultural foundations.

Outdoor recreation allows the leisure class to contend with nature in a way that mimics work.

Outdoor recreation is being sold as an industry large enough to economically support rural communities; thus it deserves the full critique and careful oversight that we require of other industries.  The outdoor recreation industry hides behind its deep cultural associations with nature and leisure. However, if we continue to focus on the “fun” parts of outdoor recreation and focusing on the leisure participant, versus the worker, comprehensive solutions to the challenges faced by outdoor recreation communities like Salida, Moab, Jackson, Aspen, or Tahoe will remain elusive. 

Sitting at the dispersed campsite in Salida, my vacation sleep interrupted, I was reminded that outdoor recreation is deeply more complicated than a leisure activity, than a promise of economic development. Next time you find you visit a rural outdoor recreation hub, I implore you to consider these dimensions, too. 

Featured Image: Looking out to Squamish Valley (on the edge of British Columbia) from a tent. Photo by Scott Goodwill, 2017.

Mara MacDonell grew up in rural northern Minnesota. She is a recent graduate of the Yale School of the Environment, where she studied topics related to rural community development and environmental justice. She currently works in renewable energy and serves on the board of Backcountry Squatters, a nonprofit dedicated to getting women and nonbinary folks outside. Contact. LinkedIn.