People are escaping outdoors in increasing numbers, creating a $730 billion industry, the third largest in the country.
More than 159 million people played outside in 2004, and Colorado is leading the way in outdoor recreation activity.
People don’t come to Colorado to stay indoors, watch television and play video games, according to Jim Maxwell, spokesman for Colorado’s National Forest Service.
“We’ve seen a huge growth in the outdoor industry,” Maxwell said. “It’s big, and it’s getting bigger. It’s growing every year – and we’re not talking about just camping and backpacking. Skiing, mountain biking, horseback riding, four-wheeling, it’s all growing.”
And with the growth comes change. The Outdoor Industry Association believes that the “granola” vibe of the 1960s and ’70s is gone.
“It’s no longer exclusively about escape into the backcountry for extended period of time,” the Boulder-based association said. “The active outdoor lifestyle has gone mainstream — representing wellness, quality time with family and friends, and a way to be outdoors in an urban center, in the front-country and/or in the backcountry.”
The National Forest Service continually reviews how forests are used in order to reflect those changing demographics, Maxwell said. Sometimes campgrounds are closed in order to allow different types of recreation. Sometimes trail designations are changed.
“Since it is such a huge growth industry, we have to be careful,” he said. “We have campers, hikers, mountain bikers, off-road vehicles all wanting to use the same space. We have to be focused on the character of the forest, what recreation experiences we should be offering and what the forests are best suited for. On the flip side, we’ve been given very limited budgets, so we have to see how we can get the biggest bang for our buck. We have to live within our means.”
Maxwell said that use of the national forests is on the upswing. During the past 30 years, the recreational use in Colorado’s national forests has increased seven fold.
“Camping, outdoor recreation is extremely popular in Colorado,” he said. “It always has been, but we’re seeing a record year.”
Nearly 85 percent of Americans ages 16 to 24 participated in an outdoor sport at least once in 2004, according to the OIA. And, as use increases, the need to protect national forest and parks is growing.
“Threats to the quality of experience, exemplified by proposed relaxation of National Park rules, pressure for increased oil and gas development, and efforts to sell of public lands are a growing concern,” said Peter Metcalf of Black Diamond, an outdoor retail specialist.
The chance to get outside means more than just a chance to play – OIA says it’s the answer to fighting the nation’s collective expanding waistline.
“It offers a solution to the pressing problem of obesity and inactivity, and it’s beginning to receive recognition as a major contributor to America’s economic vitality,” the group said in an annual report about the recreation industry.
And that increase in outdoor recreation translates into jobs, retail sales and increased tax revenue.
Retail sales nationwide are $243 billion for outdoor trips and an additional $46 billion for outdoor gear, according to a study by the Outdoor Industry Foundation in Boulder. The study shows that only pharmaceutical and automobile manufacturing ring up more sales than outdoor recreation.
“More people are getting out there,” said Matt Chiemlarczyk, manager at Mountain Chalet on Tejon Street. “In Colorado, people were already out there – and now they are going on more trips, I think. We’re seeing a lot of interests in camping gear.”
This summer is unusual, Chiemlarczyk said, because of the frequent afternoon rain showers. After years of drought, people are buying more raingear to cope with the thunderstorms. But they aren’t letting the weather stop them from getting outdoors, he said.
“We’ve had a very good season, it’s been healthy,” he said. “With gas prices so high, people are opting to stay in the state, go camping, instead of taking long road trips. We’re seeing a lot of families take backpacking trips instead of driving.”
The outdoor industry in Colorado has had to recover from two disasters: the Hayman fire that destroyed millions of acres in the national forest and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“We saw a huge decline after those two events,” he said. “But it’s come back to where we were. We’ve recovered economically, and that shows that the outdoor industry is very healthy economically.”
Summer gear sales are at a “record high,” said REI manager Rick Creekmore. “And they’re continuing to grow. The summer is our biggest business for outdoor camping gear. And we’re definitely seeing an increase. I’m not sure what it’s like in the rest of the country, but in Colorado, people are still going outside. They are taking vacations outside. Campgrounds are packed in the summer.”
But healthy outdoor gear sales translate into more than just better retail sales. According to the Outdoor Industry Foundation, the outdoor industry is responsible for 6.5 million jobs nationwide.
“One in 20 Americans depend upon the active outdoor recreation economy to make a living,” the foundation reports. “These are not just stereotypical seasonal jobs such as cleaning campgrounds or operating ski lifts. Instead, the economy supports a wide range of careers with diverse skills. These sustainable jobs are not confined to any single economic sector, and they, in turn, support larger industries – manufacturing, leisure and hospitality, transportation.”
Cash spent at retail stores to get camping gear, and at ski resorts or campgrounds supports government programs as well, the foundation said. Outdoor recreation generated $88 billion in state and federal sales and income taxes last year.
“Mining, logging, oil and gas and agriculture are the traditional backbone of many rural economies,” according to the foundation. “Today, the sustainable active outdoor recreation economy has joined that list as communities seek to create a balanced and stable base for long-term economic and community development.”