A new study reveals visitors to Bear Lake last summer pumped $48 million into the northern Utah region during more than a million days and nights of visitation.

That is a ton of money in a rural area with challenging economic development opportunities.

In addition, visitor spending was directly responsible for the 450 full- and part-time jobs.

“Local spending by the numerous visitors and part-time residents attracted to Bear Lake has become the primary economic engine for the region,” said Evan Hjerpe, director of the Conservation Economics Institute, which completed the study. “(This spending) is providing for sustainable economic development in a rural area with limited economic development opportunities.”

Great Salt Lake Collaborative

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.

Vacation haven

Curiously, although Rich County in Utah has experienced net outmigration since 2010, about 20% of visitors surveyed either lived in the Bear Lake region full time or owned or had access to a second home in the area. In 2019, nearly 80% of homes in Rich County were seasonal homes.

The study was commissioned by the Bear River Association of Governments on behalf of property and business owners in the region and government entities. It stemmed from a presentation detailing the benefits of having numbers pinned down on the value of the lake and its ecosystem.

“The original idea was inspired by the study done on the Great Salt Lake that was so informative,” said Lara Gale, regional growth planning specialist with Bear River Association of Governments. That study outlined that system’s economic benefits and subsequently what would happen if there were losses to those uses.

Gale said a next step in better understanding the watershed in its entirety will be to take a robust look at the Bear River and its entire watershed.

“Right now as it stands, everything is OK, there is no crisis. We don’t want people to think we are on the brink like the Great Salt Lake, but frankly the health of the Bear is the health of the Great Salt Lake,” she said.

Gale said what they learn can inform them about wise water management decisions going forward to avoid replicating any of the struggles of the Great Salt Lake — and that information may help both systems in the long run.

The Bear River is the major tributary to the Great Salt Lake but is on the development table in the future for a diversion that would further deplete how much water gets to the dwindling Great Salt Lake.

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Homes are under construction on the east side of Bear Lake in Rich County on Wednesday, June 29, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Building boom

The study found that the attractiveness of the lake is spurring a building boom.

Findings include:

  • From 2014 to 2019, seasonal/vacation homes increased approximately 16% from 3,100 to 3,600 in Rich and Bear Lake, Idaho, counties. The percent of all residences that were vacation homes was 34% for Bear Lake County and 73% for Rich County in 2019.
  • The majority of seasonal homes occur adjacent to Bear Lake in Garden City, Utah, (2000 seasonal homes) and Fish Haven, Idaho, (800 seasonal homes). In both communities, seasonal homes comprise more than 80% of all residences.
  • In Garden City alone, residential market values have more than doubled from 2016 to 2021, leading to a total market value of $677 million
People recreate at Rendezvous Beach on the south shore of Bear Lake.
People recreate at Rendezvous Beach on the south shore of Bear Lake in Rich County on Wednesday, June 29, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Lake-filled fun

Bear Lake State Park officials are involved in some significant projects to accommodate the growing throng of visitors.

Richard Droesbeke said he has been the park manager at Bear Lake for 15 years.

“It just keeps getting busier, busier and busier,” he said.

In 2021, the park drew 603,297 visitors and is consistently among the top 10 state parks people visit each year.

“We get a lot of families that come up and it is their destination area. It does not get extremely hot like St. George or Lake Powell, and it is really not that far from the Wasatch Front, two or three hours depending on where you are in the area,” Droesbeke said.

Both the North Eden and Rainbow Cove areas are having beach improvements made and additional campsites put in.

The Bear Lake State Park Marina, with an infusion of $60 million from the Utah Legislature, will double in size with added slips, and the current marina alongside it will remain functional, Droesbeke added.

A beach is pictured on the west shore of Bear Lake in Rich County on the Utah-Idaho border on Wednesday, June 29, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Ecosystem attributes

Like the Great Salt Lake, Bear Lake is an ecosystem superstar and provides environmental benefits. PacifiCorp manages nearly 1.5 million acre-feet of water stored in the lake, distributing it in the summer according to agreements with a host of water users for flood control, irrigation and power generation.

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In addition, the Bear Lake Wildlife Refuge and Bear Lake itself are home to more than 150 species of migratory birds, as well as endemic and other fish, big game and small wildlife.

One aspect of the study found that the public would be willing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to preserve water quantities and qualities in Bear Lake.