National forests across the country support a number of industries that in turn bolster rural and national economies. Among those industries are mining, timber and grazing. But another industry rivals the economic might of all the rest — recreation.
“Public lands, and the recreation opportunities they provide, are a kind of economic engine for gateway communities, the towns that are near or border national forests,” said Henry Eichman, a senior economist with the Forest Service.
In fiscal year 2020, visitors contributed $13.5 billion to the Nation’s gross domestic product spending that helped sustain an estimated 161,000 full- and part-time jobs – more than any other industry.
“When visitors make the trip out to their national forests, gateway communities are a convenient resting place to stay the night, stop for a bite to eat, or purchase supplies,” said Eichman, who has studied the relationship between public lands and economies for 15 years.
A 2017 Forest Service study broke down some of the most common visitor expenses including groceries, restaurants, sporting goods and souvenirs. The study found that on average a party of nonlocal visitors to a national forest spends $68 during a day trip, $251 during an overnight trip on a forest, and $579 staying overnight in a nearby town.
Those direct purchases have an even larger ripple effect on communities.
“For example, after a long hike, a hungry backpacker goes and buys a burger at a local restaurant. The restaurant needed to buy the ingredients from a supplier to make that burger. They then paid staff to cook the burger and serve it to us. The staff and local business, in turn, take that money and use a portion in the local economy,” Eichman said.
What's more, Eichman says visitation that drives economic activity is only increasing. “In 2020, people were participating in outdoor recreation in unprecedented numbers across the country, most likely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
This past year, national forests and grasslands saw 168.2 million visits – an increase of 18 million when compared to 2019. And as visit rates continue to rise, so will spending in those gateway communities.
Outstanding outdoor recreation opportunities provide for healthy fun and healthy economies. It’s a symbiotic relationship that appears will continue for quite some time.