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Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches on the Olympic Coast are just one of the spectacular landscapes that draw visitors to Washington's great outdoors. Photo by Derrick Peters.

Big Money: How Recreation is Driving Washington's Economic Landscape

From the highest peaks of the Cascades to the shimmering waters of Puget Sound, there is no doubt that residents of the Pacific Northwest love to spend time outdoors. All the time spent hitting the trails, slopes and waterways translates into big money for our state | by Lindsay Leffelman

From the highest peaks of the Cascades to the shimmering waters of Puget Sound, there is no doubt that residents of the Pacific Northwest love to spend time outdoors. In fact, Washingtonians spend an average of 56 days per year engaged in outdoor activities; nearly 80 percent of residents have spent time at a city, county or state park within the last year. Both Seattle and Portland made SmartAsset’s Top 10 list of best cities for outdoor enthusiasts

All of this time spent hitting the trails, slopes and waterways translates into big money for our state. Each year, millions of outdoor enthusiasts spend $21.6 billion on outdoor recreation in Washington. Statewide, outdoor recreation supports 200,000 jobs, exceeding the number of jobs in both the technology and aerospace industries. In addition, $2 billion in local and state taxes are collected annually as a result of outdoor recreation.

Each and every region of our state benefits financially from outdoor enthusiasts. In Whatcom County alone, residents and visitors spend about $705 million on outdoor recreation per year, supporting a total of 6,502 jobs. The nearly 800,000 visitors to the North Cascades National Park Complex in 2011 spent a total of $26.4 million in the communities surrounding the park, which supported 358 local jobs. Even the most rural counties of Eastern Washington reap the benefits of outdoor recreationists; with a population of just over 2,200, Garfield County in the southeast corner of the state spends more than $42 million each year on outdoor recreation, which provides 427 jobs.

Q&A: Five recreation leaders consider the potential and challenges ahead

With statistics such as these, it is impossible to refute the positive impact outdoor recreation has on the livelihood of our state. Perhaps Marc Berejka, the governmental affairs director at REI, sums it up best by saying:

“Washington’s natural beauty is not just a quality-of-life asset but an economic driver for a wide variety of businesses, big and small, east and west, urban and rural, that bring an unbelievable amount of revenue and jobs to all parts of our state.”

Increased tax revenue, more job opportunities and happier, healthier residents are but a few of the important benefits of the Northwest’s robust outdoor economy. To get some firsthand insight into the current state of Washington’s outdoor economy, I recently had the opportunity to pick the brains of some notable figures in the state’s recreation industry.

From tourism agencies to gear companies, from the heart of Seattle to the far reaches of Washington, each of our contributors weighed in with their unique perspective.

  • Ken Meidell is an executive at Outdoor Research, a top-rated outdoor apparel and gear company in Seattle.
  • Annique Bennett is the strategic tourism plan coordinator for Snohomish County.
  • Mary Kay Nelson is the executive director of Visit Rainier, the official tourism organization of Mount Rainier.
  • Paul Fish is the president of Mountain Gear, a Spokane Valley retailer of outdoor gear and apparel.
  • Kim Shugart is the senior vice president at Visit Tri-Cities, an organization that promotes travel and recreation in southeast Washington.

Here’s what they had to say:

What is Washington’s most valuable asset with regards to natural resources and recreation?

Meidell: Washington state has a diversity of world-class outdoor recreation assets that, as a collection, is unmatched virtually anywhere else I can think of.

Bennett: Responsibly engaged and environmentally aware stewards are Washington’s most valuable assets with regard to natural resources and recreation in our state. Without our broad network of partners in both public and private sectors working together, the natural amenities we are known for are at risk.

Shugart: The state’s topography allows for a combination of mountains, beaches, rain forests, high deserts and valleys. This translates into a varied menu of recreational opportunities, including mountain climbing, hiking, biking, sea kayaking, whitewater kayaking, skiing (both Nordic and downhill), camping, water skiing, birding and geocaching, just to name a few.

Fish: I think people who believe in recreation as an important part of their lifestyle and the natural economy are our greatest asset in keeping our public lands open and accessible. It’s the belief in the necessity of public lands that is our most valuable asset.

How important is Washington’s “natural capital” with regards to supporting the outdoor economy?

Nelson: The natural capital of Washington is highly important. From our waters to our forests to our agricultural land, so much of our outdoor recreation is borne of our state’s resources. These resources drive our outdoor recreation economy; we can’t have one without the other.

Fish: It’s so important. There are few places, if any, with the opportunities to recreate like we do in Washington. From salt water to whitewater and desert to high peaks, we have an abundance of recreation opportunities that are close to our homes and available for any level of participant.

Meidell: Washington state’s natural capital and outdoor economy are inextricably linked. Beyond the obvious linkage of enthusiasts creating economic value in the places they choose to recreate, the outdoor places we have here have helped create and nurture outdoor industry companies like Outdoor Research, REI, Cascade Designs and others that are among the most innovative in the world. This influence extends beyond the outdoor industry and also plays a role in attracting and retaining the kinds of companies in the broader economy that will be critical to the region’s success in the future.

What are the biggest hurdles to improving Washington’s outdoor recreation economy?

Fish: I think the biggest hurdle is our legislators’ belief that recreational lands need to be profitable or self-supporting, rather than recognizing the value to public health and our economy that would come from supporting these areas and their needed infrastructure.

Shugart: The absence of funding for a state tourism program. The Washington Tourism Alliance is ranked last out of all 50 states for funding; it currently receives no funding at all from the state. A strong tourism program would help attract visitors from outside the state, across the country and throughout the world. This would create an economic boom for privately owned recreation providers, public parks and natural resource agencies.

Meidell: The biggest hurdle is simply to keep increasing the overall recognition that the outdoor recreation economy exists as a viable economic driver and crafting public policy in a way that nurtures and supports it. The other big hurdle is how hard it is for people to manage the various permits and fees required to access some of these outdoor places. The land managers are all struggling with funding, support and trying to monetize the use of their lands, and as a result there is a lot of overlap and confusion for the general public.

Nelson: There is a certain subset of people that aren’t interested in exploring farther than their own back yards because they think they need special supplies or they don’t know what to expect, so we are trying to break down those barriers.

What efforts is your agency or industry making to affect improvement of Washington’s outdoor economy?

Bennett: The town of Darrington is working hard to connect regionally with neighboring communities, as well as with larger recreation and conservation groups in the state. Destination Darrington’s message improves Washington’s outdoor economy by inviting visitors to recreate in unique backcountry areas and by inspiring their participation in larger recreation priorities.

Shugart: Visit Tri-Cities will be hosting the Washington State Trails Conference in 2016 and will be sponsoring a portion of the event. Visit Tri-Cities recently launched a new website, which features a video about outdoor recreation opportunities. We also work closely with local groups that are outdoors oriented, such as Friends of Badger Mountain, the Ice Age Floods Institute, MCBONES Research Center Foundation and the Tapteal Greenway.

Fish: Mountain Gear is making efforts on two fronts. First, we are making sure we have easily accessible recreation areas available to our customers and all participants. Second, we are teaching people how to play in the outdoors and have fun.

Nelson: At Visit Rainier, our main focus is encouraging overnight stays around the mountain, mainly in Pierce County. Our website has many pages of information, including driving tours, reasons to go and things to do, in addition to places to stay. We feel we’ve made an impact in the last 10 years because of the increased availability of information.

Meidell: Being involved and relevant in our state and local outdoor community is probably the best thing we can do, and it is extremely important to us here at Outdoor Research. We proudly support numerous state organizations, such as the Seattle YMCA Bold & Gold program, NWAC, The Mountaineers, WTA and Glacier Peak Institute. In addition, we participate at both the state and national levels in lobbying efforts, to bring an understanding and awareness of the economic benefits of outdoor recreation to policy makers.

What trends are you observing that are helping to promote the health of Washington’s outdoor economy?

Shugart: First, people of all ages are drawn to a more active lifestyle compared to 10 years ago. They want hands-on, active, educational experiences rather than sedentary ones. Additionally, baby boomers are more active than the retirees of yesteryear and want to experience the same things as millennials. People are also more open to trying new activities and enjoying multiple types of recreation, rather than focusing on only one sport per season.

Fish: Introducing kids and families to outdoor recreation and play opportunities is getting promoted as healthy and safe.

Meidell: I think recent trends coming out of the governor’s office and the Legislature are encouraging. There is increasing awareness, understanding and support for how important the recreation economy is to Washington state. I also feel like the state agencies, such as DNR and state parks, are beginning to understand the importance of the outdoor economy as well.

What can Washington’s outdoor recreationists and visitors do to help promote the health of the outdoor economy?

Fish: One way is to support local businesses in the outdoors. My friend, Lee Moyer, from Pacific Water Sports, used to remind me to fill up at the gas station closest to your destination, even if it costs a bit extra. This helps locals say, “This family is supported by recreationists’ dollars.” Another way is to lobby the legislators statewide to support our state and city parks and to encourage programs that get families outside.

Nelson: Visitors need to follow the rules and know what they are. It’s true there are many restrictions in the national park, and we don’t want to emphasize what visitors can’t do, but regulations are needed. Overuse can be detrimental, and we don’t want to lose access to these special places. We want people up there enjoying them, which means we have guidelines that need to be followed. The National Park Service is celebrating its centennial this year. With that in mind, we need to think about how to prepare for another 100 years.

Meidell: We think life gets better when you get outdoors, so I think the best thing people can do is get outdoors more and encourage their friends to do the same. People will advocate for things they care about! Once they care, the single biggest step any individual can take is then to let their elected representatives know that this is something they care about. The folks in Olympia and Washington, D.C. want to know what their constituents care about, and they will listen.

A people-driven industry

In our conversation with these recreation leaders, it is abundantly clear that the most important contributor to Washington’s outdoor economy is you. Without you and your fellow outdoor enthusiasts, the Northwest’s economy simply would not be as strong as it is. There is always room for continued growth, and there are many ways you can play a part.

Shop locally and purchase your outdoor clothing and equipment from Washington-owned and -operated gear companies and retail establishments, like Outdoor Research and Mountain Gear. Support local communities, like Darrington and Roslyn, that depend on recreation dollars, by filling up your tank in town or picking up your trail snacks from the local grocer. Be informed by utilizing local tourism agencies such as Visit Rainier and Visit Tri-Cities when planning your next outing. Advocate for outdoor recreation and contact your elected officials to let them know that the health of Washington’s outdoor economy is important to you.

But most importantly, just get outside and do what you love to do! There’s no better way to ensure continued access and economic support of outdoor recreation than to enjoy the natural wonders of Washington’s parks, forests and waters.