The Daily Inter Lake: Bill Pushes Focus on $5.8 Billion Outdoor Industry

Montana’s outdoor recreation industry is frequently cited as a top economic driver in the state, but aside from a scattering of privately funded studies and location-specific economic impact reports, the sector’s full scope remains largely unknown.

That could change within two years if a bill passed unanimously by the Senate this week wins President Barack Obama’s signature.

The Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act directs federal agencies and departments to begin accounting for outdoor recreation as an economic sector within gross domestic product, a measure the country’s overall economic output.

“At a really macro level, it helps show the support of Congress — and through Congress, the country — that outdoor recreation is an important economic engine,” said Jessica Wahl, the government affairs manager for the Boulder, Colorado-based Outdoor Industry Association.

The national outdoors trade group has published some state-by-state data frequently cited by politicians and advocates. In Montana, the OIA’s most recent study, conducted in 2012, estimates that outdoor spending totals $5.8 billion per year, is directly responsible for 64,000 jobs and generates more than $400 million in state and local taxes. Nationwide, the study estimates the industry at $646 billion, compared with $374 billion in national spending on vehicles and parts.

However, Wahl pointed out that those statistics are limited compared with the federal government’s access to a broad spectrum of historical economic data spanning multiple sectors of the nation’s economy.

“There’s nothing like official government data,” she said. “It will get us on the same playing field as other sectors, and the government has access to … layers of the outdoor recreational engine that we can’t get to.”

Other Studies indicate that specific slices of the state’s outdoor-recreational pie yield significant dividends: A National Park Service study found that Glacier National Park generated nearly $199 million in local visitor spending last year, and annual events like the Spartan Race and the Dragon Boat Festival bring in millions, according to the Kalispell Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The bill directs the federal Commerce Department to work with the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture and to “consider employment, sales and contributions to travel and tourism, and such other contributing components of the outdoor recreation economy of the United States as the Secretary considers appropriate.”

In addition to the bipartisan support the bill received in both the House and the Senate, all three of Montana’s Congressional representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of the measure.

Republican Sen. Steve Daines said he hopes the improved economic data will lend more strength to arguments in favor of increased funding and support for public recreation infrastructure.

“We know that’s true in business, but the government has been slow to accept that, quantify it and ensure we have policies to support it,” Daines said. He referred to a recent horseback trip with his wife through some of the state’s wilderness areas as evidence that outdoors infrastructure is in need of more committed investment from the federal government.

“When you drive up to a trailhead, you can see the lack of infrastructure,” he said. “Parking facilities aren’t adequate and the trails aren’t adequate.”

And Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester noted that for lawmakers from urban areas, or regions with less emphasis on wild places, the dollar figures could hammer home the economic value in protecting those resources.

“The President-Elect is from New York City, and it’s great being from New York City, but I think this kind of information coming out of the Department of Commerce is going to help educate him and the staff we’re going to be confirming about the importance of public lands and the importance of the outdoor economy in our state,” Tester said.

He also added that his priorities, including full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and resisting attempts to transfer federal public lands to the states, would benefit from the dollar-and-cents quantification.

“I think we have just scratched the surface in a state like Montana, with the potential economic, employment and quality-of-life issues that revolve around our outdoors,” he said.