With COVID-19 in full swing in 2020, people wanted to breathe fresh air and get away from the crowds. Restaurants, movie theaters and concert venues were all off limits, so other opportunities were embraced.

Enter outdoor recreation.

From 2020 to 2021, Utah’s outdoor recreation economy grew by 27.3%, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. Additionally, that growth fueled $6.1 billion in value-added dollars for the state’s economy, accounting for 2.7% of its gross domestic product and supporting nearly 67,000 jobs.

The number of people wanting to have fun outside has continued to increase, not only in Utah but across the country.

To that end, the Bureau of Land Management Thursday announced a new initiative intended to guide the land agency as it ramps up its programs, infrastructure and partnerships to better meet the growing demand of outdoor recreation.

The BLM manages 245 million acres of public land across the country, including 22 million acres in Utah — which is roughly 42% of the state’s total land area.

Those outdoor activities BLM hosts include hiking, fishing, camping, climbing, hunting, ATV’ing, horseback riding, mountain biking, snowmobiling, boating and more that contribute billions of dollars to national and local economies.

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But the federal agency concedes it has lacked the tools or focused directive to manage for increased outdoor recreation infrastructure and investments in a proactive manner and instead has been more reactive to demands.

The “Blueprint for 21st Century Outdoor Recreation” aims to change that and is expected to be released later this year.

“Through the Blueprint, BLM is establishing a new vision to proactively manage for exceptional and unique recreational experiences that invite all to share in the enjoyment and stewardship of their public lands,” the agency said.

In its announcement, the BLM pointed to several examples where partnerships and innovative approaches have protected or boosted recreational opportunities, including the Red Bluff Area of Critical Concern outside of St. George.

The area includes many popular mountain bike trails but is also home to the Dwarf Bear Claw Poppy, which is endangered and grows only in southwest Utah. Its endangered status could eliminate or severely reduce recreation if steps were not taken to make sure the plant was protected.

The BLM enlisted the help of the American Conservation Experience crew, a nonprofit organization which trains youth volunteers to engage in projects to protect public lands.

Members of the group installed a split rail fence to keep riders and hikers on the trail and protect the plant. A second phase involved the use of a helicopter and used firefighters and other workers from the Arizona Strip, Dixie National Forest and National Park Service to complete the work.

In California, BLM and its partners constructed 150 miles of trails for walkers, runners, hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers. From paved easy paths to challenging single track bike trails, the trails connect BLM-managed public lands to trail networks in the city of Redding and the adjacent Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.

The announcement of the initiative was met with praise by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, which said its potential impacts cannot be overemphasized.

“This blueprint could be the game changer that our public lands, outdoor recreationists and industry need to increase outdoor opportunities for more Americans, and grow one of the most dynamic and resilient sectors of the national economy,” said Jessica Wahl Turner, the group’s president.

“It Is also an opportunity for the BLM to look at partnerships and inclusion efforts differently, and through a 21st century lens that will support outdoor participation for the next century and beyond.”