Why Doesn’t Uncle Sam Count Outdoor Recreation Jobs?


Even though the outdoor recreation industry, by its own reckoning, employs far more Americans than the oil and gas, timber, and mining industries combined, the federal government does not measure or track the huge impacts of the outdoor economy.

Seeking to fill that gap, and to bolster the economic arguments favoring smart land conservation policies, leaders in the outdoor recreation industry have joined with the Center for American Progress in a “Count My Job” campaign to encourage the Obama administration to direct federal agencies to gather comprehensive data on the booming sector.

“Outdoor recreation is not only a powerful and fast-growing sector, but the appeal of nearby public lands and waters provides communities with a competitive advantage to attract new businesses and high-skilled workers,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, Senior Fellow and Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. “It is time that the government account for the jobs and economic value that are flowing from America’s growing outdoor recreation industry.”

“Outdoor businesses provide billions of dollars in direct impact at the local, state and federal levels,” added Steve Barker, interim Executive Director of the Outdoor Industry Association, which is sponsoring the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market trade show which kicked off in Salt Lake City, Utah Wednesday. “Our industry has become a vital contributor to the U.S economy, and the government should recognize and record the economic benefits of outdoor recreation and of the protected land and water on which the outdoor industry relies.”

“There’s a lie going around that the best way to grow our economy and create jobs is to pump more oil and gas from the ground,” said Hans Cole, Patagonia Environmental Campaigns and Advocacy Manager. “Outdoor recreation plays a huge role in supporting our economy. We owe it to ourselves and the future of our planet to count the jobs our industry supports and use the results as a tool in fighting to protect the places we love.”

In an issue brief posted Wednesday, the Center for American Progress laid out a strong case for having federal agencies collect and disseminate a range of measures of the robust outdoor economy sector.

“Having basic information about an economic sector — such as the number of people it employs and how much economic value it produces — is indispensable to the development of effective, economically efficient policies that promote and sustain economic growth and stability,” notes the issue brief. “Policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels are making decisions that affect the landscapes and waters that underpin America’s vibrant outdoor economy without basic data on the sector’s economic contributions.”

Determining some of the economic impacts of the outdoor economy is “relatively straightforward,” the CAP analysis found, and that information has been collected and published by the Outdoor Industry Association. That trade group, for example, has calculated that outdoor recreation employs some 6.1 million people in the U.S. and that consumers here spend about $646 billion annually on outdoor recreation.

There is also research into the connection between the economic health of local communities and their proximity to protected lands, such as a 2012 study by Headwaters Economics that showed western communities near protected areas have better job growth and higher per capita income.

But studies by trade groups and nonprofits “are in no way a substitute for a comprehensive, national assessment of the outdoor economy’s employment and gross domestic product contributions conducted by independent economic experts,” the CAP issue brief argues. Just as federal agencies are now collecting information on the value of arts and culture to the U.S. economy, so should they be doing the same for the outdoor economy.

“With the centennial of America’s National Park Service approaching in 2016, now is the moment for the Obama administration to address this lack of information,” the CAP report concluded.