Bureau of Economic Analysis: 2021 a record-breaking year for outdoor recreation economy

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, released national and state economic data showcasing the record-breaking year the outdoor recreation economy had in 2021. This analysis demonstrates outdoor recreation’s powerful and positive economic impact on the U.S. economy as the nation rebounded from the COVID-19 pandemic and Americans prioritized time outside. New government data shows outdoor recreation generated $862 billion in economic output, comprised 1.9% of the U.S. GDP, and supported 4.5 million jobs (or 3% of all employees in the country).

This report shows how the outdoor recreation economy continues to support people, communities, and economies across the country, especially in rural areas. 

Click the image to see Pennsylvania’s full 2021 outdoor recreation report from BEA.

“The BEA data underscores how important it is to invest in public lands, waters, and recreation infrastructure from coast to coast and for recreation activities of all types,” said Jessica Turner, president of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable. “From the creation of jobs and increased profit for small businesses in local economies, to larger boons to our national economy, this sector is a consistent driver, even in times of economic uncertainty. The strength of the outdoor recreation economy reflects what many in the industry have long known to be true: there are infinite benefits that come from more people spending time outdoors, and they’ll only grow with continued investment.” 

According to the report, $14 billion was added to Pennsylvania’s GDP from outdoor recreation, up 22% from 2020.

“Outdoor recreation statistics are not yet available at the county level, but this sector is definitely growing in the PA Wilds region,” said PA Wilds Center CEO Ta Enos. “We’ve seen double-digit growth in visitor spending in every county of the PA Wilds over the last decade, record-setting growth in the years leading up to the pandemic, many small business startups and expansions, and a growing number of rural communities leveraging their positions as gateways to public lands, waterways and other recreation assets in recent years. We’ve also seen many rural communities advancing regionally-significant recreation projects that improve quality of life and serve as powerful economic drivers.”

Enos said the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which manages so much of the public land in the PA Wilds, has been a critical investor in the PA Wilds outdoor recreation industry cluster through its Conservation Landscape program; and through the annual Community Conservation Partnership Programs (C2P2) grants it administers, which supports so many community-driven recreation, park and conservation projects across the Wilds. 

“DCNR understood the power of outdoor rec as a rural economic driver when they helped launch the PA Wilds effort two decades ago,” Enos said. “We would not be where we are today without their help and leadership.”

The federal Appalachian Regional Commission, which in PA works closely with the PA Department of Community and Economic Development to make investments, has also been a critical investor in outdoor recreation economies across the 13 states that make up Appalachia, including in the PA Wilds. 

“I feel like the PA Wilds is a microcosm of what we see happening across the larger Appalachian Region,” Enos says. “Public lands are the bones of the outdoor rec economy, and Appalachia has a lot of those. Applachia also has big population centers nearby, and growing market demand for outdoor rec experiences and products. Appalachia also has a rich cultural and natural heritage, and a history of hardship and dignity in the face of that hardship, that keeps it grounded and authentic. That is important for outdoor rec destinations, and the outdoor rec companies that call those destinations home, because consumers increasingly want to support authentic, socially-responsible destinations, brands and goods. Then on top of that, Appalachia has a lot of entrepreneurial people because a lot of us have had to bootstrap for a really long time. So across Appalachia, you see communities recognizing these things, getting organized around them, and really working to grow outdoor economies. And ARC has been there, investing in these efforts and helping to build peer networks around them.” 

Earlier this year, DCNR hired the state’s first ever Outdoor Recreation Director, Nathan Reigner, to connect public land managers, private industry, and community projects to grow their outdoor economies.

“We can already see the impact of Reigner’s work, and the national visibility it has brought to PA and the PA Wilds region,” Enos said.

Five individuals from the PA Wilds region serve on the Growing Outdoor Recreation for PA coalition, which is led by Reigner and helping to shape what a new Office of Outdoor Recreation could look like for Pennsylvania.

“Pennsylvania has long been a leader in the country in outdoor recreation, both in terms of the number of outdoor enthusiasts that call Pennsylvania home, and the innovative, collaborative and sustainable approaches we’re taking to grow this sector,” Enos said. 

“Pennsylvania has one of the largest outdoor recreation economies in the country, employing hundreds of people across the manufacturing and service sectors. But as the new BEA statistics show, there is still a lot of room for growth. We are excited to see where we can go as a rural region and as a state as Pennsylvania puts more supports around this growing sector.” 

Check out the full story at the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable website.

See Pennsylvania’s specific statistics from the BEA website or at Outdoor Recreation Roundtable’s state-by-state breakdown.

Even more information is available at the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources page for the Director of Outdoor Recreation.

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