The Outdoor Industry Muscles Up

Boulder, Colorado: From its chiseled, thru-hiking calves to its swollen rock-climbing forearms, the U.S. outdoor industry has been flexing its muscles lately. According to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), a trade organization in Boulder, Colorado, American consumers now spend more on outdoor recreation ($887 billion) than they do on gasoline and fuels ($304 billion), motor vehicles and parts ($465 billion) or pharmaceuticals ($466 billion).

hiker on trail

OIA’s definition of “outdoor recreation” is broad, including everything from archery to scuba diving. But even the most traditional outdoor activities have become powerful economic drivers. Americans spent more on trail sports gear ($20 billion) than they did on home entertainment ($18 billion) last year, according to the OIA data.

The newfound brawniness of the outdoor economy also carries political implications. This summer, media outlets like the New York Times and Associated Press closely covered the move of the Outdoor Retailer trade show—one of the outdoor industry’s biggest events—from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Denver, Colorado. Many industry leaders pinned their support for the move on the perception that Colorado’s public lands policies are more focused on conservation and recreation than in Utah, where extraction and development are sometimes favored.

In both economic and political terms, outdoor recreation is no shrinking violet. Even more growth seems inevitable—American national parks broke the previous year’s visitation record in 2016, hosting 331 million visits, while state parks hosted more than double that number with at least 730 million annual visits.

Outdoor enthusiasts are sometimes tempted to blame the degradation of natural resources solely on industrial pollution or large-scale land development, but in truth the collective impacts of human recreation are substantial. As the OIA data reveals, the outdoor industry has become a major economic driver—and there’s no such thing as an industry worth $887 billion that does not impact that natural world. Some of that impact derives from manufacturing and shipping recreation equipment, but it also comes from the activities themselves, which often occur in pristine and sensitive environments.

The non-profit Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is firmly in favor of expanding opportunities for people to experience natural areas and enjoy recreational opportunities. For nearly two decades, the organization’s mission has been to protect the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly.
Dana Watts, the Center’s Executive Director, says “Most people want to be low-impact, but they don’t always have the skills they need. When recreational visitors are exposed to Leave No Trace they see how easy it is to help protect our shared recreational resources.” Watts adds that Leave No Trace is not an all-or-nothing proposition. “Even a simple thing, like teaching people why it's important to pack out their orange peels and other food waste instead of tossing them into the woods, can have a big effect over time.”

Last year, the Center reached more than 15.5 million people, helping them understand how to take simple steps that lessen their impacts. As the size and force of the outdoor economy grows—with annual participation now measured in the hundreds of millions—so does the need to expand efforts to protect the natural environments that support its growth. Leave No Trace is poised to play a key role in this effort. 

— Mark Eller is the Foundations Director at the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.