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The Outdoor Recreation Economy in Pennsylvania

May 04, 2022 12:00 AM
By: Nathan Reigner, Pennsylvania Director of Outdoor Recreation

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​Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pennsylvanians have come to appreciate that outdoor recreation is essential to our lives.

Indeed, during the height of the lockdown, many of us only left our homes for three reasons: to get our essential supplies from the grocery store and pharmacy, to go to our essential jobs, and to go outside for our essential outdoor recreation.

Taking a walk in the park, riding our bikes along the trail, and camping with our families kept us healthy, kept us happy, and kept us safe -- and this is a lesson I am sure we will not soon forget.

Pennsylvania Businesses Benefit from Outdoor Recreation

Bikes, outdoors, street, building

Another lesson we are learning about outdoor recreation, one that is less obvious but no less important, is the essential role outdoor recreation plays for the prosperity of Pennsylvania and the growth of our economy.

Outdoor recreation-related businesses make significant direct contributions to our economy. Outdoor recreation also makes Pennsylvania communities attractive places to work and operate businesses.  Outdoor recreation is, in fact, essential to our economy.

Outdoors, shop, building, porch, signs, doors, windows

The range of outdoor recreation-related business is diverse, including manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of outdoor equipment, apparel, and supplies; guides, outfitters, and resorts who provide outdoor recreation experiences; and professional service providers who specialize in and cater to the outdoor recreation industry.

We have many fine examples of these businesses, some large and a lot small, in every corner of the commonwealth. These are businesses through which Pennsylvanians make professions out of their passions.

Economic Impact from Outdoor Recreation in Pennsylvania

biking, road, outdoors, nature, man, bike, Raccoon Creek State Park

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis is the governmental body charged with providing economic analysis for policy and decision making. Their annual statistics are particularly useful because they treat our economy as a whole, analyze each industry’s contributions independently, and account for each dollar generated in the economy.

Because outdoor recreation is such a significant part of the economy, Congress directed the Bureau of Economic Analysis in 2016 to begin analyzing outdoor recreation as its own industrial sector.

Based on the most recent data from the bureau (2020), outdoor recreation contributed $12 billion to the Pennsylvania economy, directly supporting the equivalent of approximately 150,000 jobs. This accounts for 1.5 percent of our commonwealth’s total economic productivity.

nature, outdoors, water, kayak, boat, person, kids, trees, turtles, wildlife

One of the strengths of the Bureau of Economic Analysis economic data is that it allows for direct comparisons among industries, a helpful capability for comparing return on investment and focusing administrative support.

While we should not necessarily equate the value of an industry with its size, it is informative to consider the relative outputs of industries in comparison with the levels of support and investment we give them.

For example, in the natural resources sector, outdoor recreation and mineral extraction can compete for space both on the land and in public discourse.

In 2020, mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction combined to add $7 billion to Pennsylvania’s gross domestic product , approximately one-half the value added by outdoor recreation.

As we continue to discuss how to best monetize our natural resources for the long-term benefit of Pennsylvanians, leveraging the earning power outdoor recreation with investment and support comparable to -- or even greater! -- than those we provide other industries will boost its contributions even further.

Rural Communities See Rewards from the Outdoor Sector

Horses, trail, outdoors, nature, people, trees

While outdoor recreation makes a significant direct contribution to Pennsylvania’s economy, its greatest potential economic influence comes through its connection to the prosperity of our communities through its contribution to quality of life.

It is an unfortunate fact that many of our small and rural communities are losing jobs, losing population, and worst of all, losing hope. However, we see evidence in Pennsylvania and elsewhere of new growth, vibrance, and fortunate delivered by outdoor recreation.

A recent study published by the Brookings Institution examined the drivers of population and employment growth in 686 small and midsized rural and industrial communities in the Midwest -- communities much like many of ours in Pennsylvania.

Nature, outdoors, person, lake, water, fishing pole, mountain, pier

The study documents that high quality of life resulting from access to outdoor recreation, preservation of historic downtowns, and the presence contemporary cultural services is a far more powerful driver of prosperity than “business friendly” practices like regulatory relief, tax relief, and financial incentives.

The real significance of this effect emerges when combined with two characteristics of 21st century labor market that are likely here to stay. The first characteristic is a challenge, the recognition that talent attraction and workforce retention are perhaps the greatest difficulty facing business operators of all sizes everywhere.

Outdoors, nature, person, hang glider, trees, mountain

The second is an opportunity, the rapid expansion of remote work capabilities, opportunities, and demand. Abundant, accessible, and high-quality outdoor recreation helps communities be places where workers want to be and stay -- it mitigates the challenge, leverages the opportunity, and is critical to community development, vibrance, prosperity, and pride.

Next time you hike, paddle, ride, hunt, fish, ski, watch birds, or simply enjoy Pennsylvania’s scenery; next time you attend a community planning meeting, talk to your zoning commissioner, or consider an employment move; next time you purchase a piece of Pennsylvania-made recreation equipment or patronize a Pennsylvania-owned outdoor retailer, do so with an appreciation for the importance of outdoor recreation for Pennsylvania’s economy and prosperity.

You are doing right by yourself, your community, and our commonwealth.

Learn more about Pennsylvania’s Director of Outdoor Recreation on the DCNR website.

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