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Boosting our rural economies starts with outdoor recreation

The recreation economy is essential to small towns throughout Utah and the West

SHARE Boosting our rural economies starts with outdoor recreation

Jon Vickers, Momentum Indoor Climbing

If you take Exit 91 off Interstate 70 on your way through central Utah, you’ll find yourself passing through the valleys of Emery County. You won’t find many people — and if you stopped here, you might think that’s all there is to Emery: miles of road, acres of pasture and the features of a disappearing population.

But a few miles north the road will deposit you in Orangeville, nestled right in the heart of Joe’s Valley. 

Here, converted vans line the parking lot of Joe’s Valley Food Ranch and crowd the streets near Cup of Joe’s, the lone coffee shop in town. The vans are from around the country, driven by groups of 20-somethings peering at the day’s breakfast selection. They’re here for rock climbing. 

Joe’s Valley has become a mecca for climbers over the last 15 years. In the spring and fall, the small town might see visitors from over 20 countries and six continents. 

Orangeville’s growing number of small businesses reflect this unique opportunity — the coffee shop and supermarkets supply climbing chalk and gear, while the Boulder Haus, the Hangout and Joe’s Valley campgrounds are newer additions to the town’s climbing hospitality industry. 

But it wasn’t always this way. 

A decade ago, Orangeville was in decline. The county’s mines, the heart of Orangeville’s economy, were dwindling as coal production dropped. The town’s unemployment rate continued to rise while the county scrambled to find a solution. Rural communities began asking how they might sustain themselves, and found an answer in the outdoor industry.

In Oakridge, Oregon, after the sawmills shut down, the former logging town found economic revival in its mountain biking trails. They bring in millions of dollars annually, and led to the opening of a bakery, microbrewery, outdoor store and guiding service. 

In southwest Virginia, manufacturing and coal mining dropped by over 50% over the last few decades. The region turned to the outdoor recreation economy, adding thousands of leisure and hospitality jobs, and saw a $300 million increase in travel expenditures in the area. In 2019, Virginia State Parks brought in $343 million dollars, supporting over 4,000 jobs. 

Nationwide, the outdoor industry is booming. Outdoor recreation has been growing faster than the national economy since measurements began, and its benefits have reached rural communities around the country. 

Since the early 1970s, population, employment and personal income all grew twice as fast in Western rural counties with the highest percentage of federal lands compared to counties with the lowest percentage of federal lands. Non-metropolitan counties where outdoor recreation dominates the economy, or “recreation counties,” are growing in population while non-recreation counties are losing residents. By nearly every metric, the presence of recreation as a feature of the local economy improves the well-being of its people. 

In 2019, recognizing the potential of the outdoor industry for rural economic growth, the Environmental Protection Agency created a pilot program called Recreation Economy for Rural Communities aimed at supporting a number of small-town economies by investing in the development of their outdoor spaces.

This type of investment works. In 2019, for every $1 of general tax revenue provided to state parks in Virginia, the state parks brought in $17.68. That same year, the National Park System generated more than 30 times as much as the federal government invested. Meanwhile, local success stories like those of Orangeville, Oakridge, and southwest Virginia only continue to emerge. 

To be sure, investment in public lands and the outdoor recreation economy will not be the silver bullet that solves all of rural America’s woes. Rural flight trends inexorably forward in many areas, while some regions do not have the natural attractions or consumer bases required to capitalize on the outdoor economy. 

But what’s increasingly hard to ignore is the fact that focused investment in the outdoors means consistent results in a near trillion-dollar industry that only continues to grow.

As federal, state and regional governments look to find new channels through which to promote sustainable economic growth, the recreation economy ought to be a central consideration. This will demand investment in public lands, the stewardship and establishment of parks, and the expansion of community programs like RERC to foster growth in the private sector.     

The result will be thriving economies, consumer satisfaction, and an insight into how sustainability and development can work alongside one another.

And for the residents of Orangeville, Utah, and many like them around the country, it will mean a second chance at making a life in the place they call home.

Thomas Hochman is an undergraduate student at The University of Vermont’s Honors College. His writing has appeared in Merion West and The American Spectator. He is a member of the American Conservation Coalition.