Outdoor recreation keeps delivering an economic boost to the West

It’s no secret that the abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities in the West is a major draw to the region. And it’s also no surprise that outdoor recreation is big business. How big? Recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) shows that the national outdoor recreation economy totaled $564 billion in 2022, a solid 2.2% of our country’s gross domestic product.

Outdoor recreation’s share of GDP was also significant in western states, where it topped 4% in Montana and Wyoming, and equaled roughly 3% in Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Washington. All that spending supports employment: The BEA report notes outdoor recreation employment increased in all 50 states in 2022. The numbers again were impressive in the West, where increases included: 10% in California; 9% in Colorado; 8% in Nevada and Wyoming; and 7% in Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah.

That growth was accomplished in a year that saw inflation-adjusted GDP for the outdoor recreation economy increase just 4.8%, well off a 19% increase in 2021. Of course, the enormous growth in 2021 owes much to a pandemic-caused decline in 2020. And BEA points out that the sector’s nearly 5% growth during 2022 looks solid compared to the 1.9% increase for the overall economy in that year.

Where’s all that money being spent? The top areas, according to BEA:

  • RVing was the largest activity, with $35.5 billion in current‐dollar value;
  • Boating/fishing brought in $32.4 billion nationally;
  • Motorcycling/ATVing netted $11.5 billion;
  • Snow activities earned $7 billion, with the largest contributors being in the West: Colorado
  • ($1.4 billion), California ($688 million), and Utah ($602 million)

In my home state of Colorado the significance of the outdoor recreation economy has resulted in a new event: the Outside Festival. The two-day gathering (June 1-2) in Denver’s Civic Center Park is being produced by Outside Interactive (publisher of SKI, Outside and other magazines), the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office and Visit Denver. Attendees will be able to check out the latest gear, hear speakers such as distance swimming legend Diana Nyad and snowboarder Shaun White, and attend concerts by the likes of Fleet Foxes and Andrew Bird. Learn more.

SNOWPACK UPDATE: As Colorado goes, so goes the Colorado River, which is critical to the water needs of states downstream from the Centennial State. At the moment, Colorado goes “well” after a slow start to the season. Colorado Public Radio reports that Martin Luther King Jr. weekend storms and subsequent high country snow have boosted statewide snowpack to 97% of median as of Feb. 19. (Read more.) 

THE PRICE IS RIGHT: You might remember my conversation last spring about the challenges and opportunities of cattle ranching with MRG broker Jared Souza. At that time Jared said all indicators – especially the fact that supply of beef cows was significantly lower than previous years – suggested it would a good year financially for cow-calf operations. A recent story in the Denver Post would seem to confirm that, with an economist reporting “prices are up about 10% from a year ago. If you go back to 2019 levels, you’re talking about closer to a 30% increase.” But don’t break out the party streamers quite yet, because the average operating expenses to raise a cow continues to climb, according to a report by the Colorado Sun.

WE’RE ON A ROLL: Last year was jam-packed at Mirr Ranch Group. See for yourself by reading the Mirr Ranch Group Top 10 for 2023, which examines western issues such as water, amazing western women like Amber Smith of Women in Ranching and Erin Crider of Uncharted Outdoorswomen, and highlights our work on the Explora project in Patagonia and our King Land and Water Alliance. Prefer to listen? Check out our two-part podcast.

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