Outdoor recreation sector stumbles amid record usage

WYOMING -- Pandemic-fueled spikes in park visitation, campground reservations, trail use and other metrics failed to translate into economic growth for Wyoming’s outdoor recreation sector in 2020.

In fact, jobs and revenue figures fell in the key economic segment, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, despite reports of high user numbers. 

Still, many business and policy leaders see outdoor recreation as crucial to diversifying Wyoming’s economy — and as a lifeline out of the pandemic-induced slump. 

“Tourism and outdoor recreation have become major contributors to our revenues. Most of those dollars are paid for by visitors, not our citizens,” Gov. Mark Gordon told the Joint Appropriations Committee on Dec. 16 as he proposed earmarking $40 million in federal stimulus funds for outdoor-recreation grants. 

Growing the sector may not be straightforward. Issues like workforce and housing shortages continue to challenge the industry, experts say. And if recent controversies are an indication, gaining buy-in for bigger crowds from Wyoming’s wide-open-spaces-loving residents may prove difficult.

Outdoor recreation added $1.25 billion in value to Wyoming’s GDP in 2020, according to BEA data released in November. At 3.4 percent, that ranked Wyoming fourth among the 50 states for the share of its economy driven by outdoor rec.

Both measures were down from 2019 in which $1.69 billion, or 4.2% of the state’s GDP, was credited to the outdoor recreation sector.

Nationwide, outdoor recreation’s share of GDP fell more dramatically from 2019 to 2020. Several other indicators, like real gross output and compensation, also declined. 

In Wyoming, outdoor recreation employment took a significant hit with a 24-percent decrease, from 21,344 jobs to 14,187. 

The industry was not alone in seeing a slump; 2020 was the worst year for Wyoming’s economic growth since 1986, according to a recent report by Wyoming’s chief economist, Dr. Wenlin Liu.

Still, the disappointing economic performance stands in contrast to anecdotal evidence and visitation tracking that depicted sky-high numbers in 2020. Wyoming’s overall declines were mostly fueled by sectors heavily impacted by pandemic-related restrictions and closures, according to Chris Floyd, manager of Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation. Snow activities, particularly at ski resorts, saw a decrease of 37 percent, or $40 million in economic impact, according to Floyd’s office.

“The ski resorts, that’s a big part of our outdoor rec economy, and so the hit [that sector] took overtook a lot of the other gains,” Floyd said. 

Other activities saw significant growth, he said. They included snowmobiling and ORV riding; permit sales of each jumped more than 15 percent from 2019 to 2020. Boating, fishing, biking and hiking were all up too, he said. “Almost everything else went up, but it was not enough to overtake [the declines],” he said. 

Another factor that shaped overall economic impact was the nature of visitation, said Wyoming Office of Tourism Executive Director Diane Shober. 

“There was a lot of day tripping,” she said. “There’s still economic value in day trippers,” but not as much as overnighters. 

COVID-19 also forced many enterprises to limit operations — from lodging to restaurant seats to guided tours — she said, so those visitation opportunities shrunk, and jobs sloughed as a result.  

High concentrations of visitors in areas like Park and Teton counties, Shober said, probably contributed to the perception of boomtime outdoor tourism. “But yet, it doesn’t always equate to … a positive economic benchmark.” 

Comprehensive 2021 numbers aren’t yet available, but signs point toward continuing growth in outdoor recreation.

Wyoming’s State Parks and Historic Sites’ 2021 statistics are on track to match or exceed the record-setting numbers of 2020, the agency announced in December. Through October, state parks and historic sites had seen 5.1 million visits, a 24-percent increase over the system’s five-year average.

“We’re still way up,” Floyd said.   

Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks also saw record-shattering visitation in 2021. GTNP had hosted more than 3.8 million recreation visits by the end of November and surpassed the busiest full year on record in September, while Yellowstone surpassed its previous annual highmark with 4.8 million visits through October. 

Huge crowds have prompted national park officials to consider more aggressive visitor management. 

Many businesses also reported strong equipment sales continued into 2021. 

“Last winter was great, last summer was great,” said Dave Carter, who owns Cheyenne Bicycle Shop.

Carter estimates that sales spiked 30 percent in 2020, a “huge” year in which he said he practically sold every item on the floor. Fortunately he had ordered his inventory pre-season and he had plenty in stock before the pandemic began — so he wasn’t as stymied by supply-chain shortages as others, he said. 

Business has levelled out a little, he said, but he still expects relatively high demand. 

“I don’t think it’s going to be like 2020 where everybody was just a feeding frenzy, but I think it’ll carry on for a little bit,” Carter said. 

Shober sees significant potential for outdoor recreation in the state. 

“There’s opportunity everywhere around the state of Wyoming,” she said — from raising the profile of destinations like the Killpecker sand dunes to growing activities like winter fat-tire biking to equipping visitors with things like guides, rental bikes and climbing equipment.  

Those opportunities could open even wider under Gov. Gordon’s recent ARPA fund proposals. The governor proposed spending $40 million of the more than $1 billion in federal stimulus dollars for “grants to enhance outdoor recreation in Wyoming and to help communities pursue construction of new outdoor recreation products and infrastructure.”

The program “would make substantially more dollars available to local communities that have been doing planning for how to build trails, parks and other recreational facilities,” Gordon said during the Dec. 16 presentation. 

The industry’s role in the state’s pandemic recovery, Shober said, “is essential.” 

However, she said, the state will have to work to ensure resources are protected and infrastructure holds up to increased use. Ancillary tasks that could bolster growth, she said, include supporting entrepreneurs and addressing workplace shortage issues that are plaguing employers across the country. 

Floyd echoed that recent trends have spelled out a need for the state to respond in other ways, such as expanding facilities in heavily used areas. “We need, quite frankly, to expand capacity in some places that can handle it,” Floyd said. 

“The key will be to try to find that balance right between innovative bold projects, but also the kind that can pass muster in the public but can also meet the deadline,” he said.

Recent controversies have shown that expanding outdoor recreation isn’t always embraced. Planners went back to the drawing board and revised a proposal to build a via ferrata on a cliff in Sinks Canyon State Park after local opposition crested. Wyoming State Parks also withdrew plans for 40 temporary campsites at Buffalo Bill State Park following “an abundance of public concerns.” 

“The Via Ferrata shone a bright light on whether or not communities want actual growth, and if so, what kind,” said Mike Kusiek, a Lander resident who has been involved in trying to create a Wyoming outdoor recreation trade association. “NIMBY [not in my back yard] is real, especially when it’s affecting you.”

Recent pushback, he said, forced him to pause and reconsider how best to strike the balance between public desires and community benefits. 

Kusiek said he has found significant beneficial trickle-down effects of outdoor recreation, particularly in a study focused on Fremont County. And yet, he said, community buy-in is crucial for the industry to flourish. Floyd echoed that. 

“To me, the biggest challenge for outdoor recreation in Wyoming is not simply the funding,” Floyd said. “I think a lot of it is just getting buy-in from the public and helping them understand that Wyoming is facing a lot of headwinds economically and that there are a lot of challenges ahead, and Wyoming’s just going to keep changing.

“I think our public needs to be involved in this growth as much as possible because a lot of folks, quite frankly, are concerned about increased visitors, visitor use, increased traffic from other states,” he continued.  

Neither Kusiek nor Floyd see the growth trends reversing. 

“We’ve seen that the floor has been lifted,” Floyd said. “In other words, there’s like a new baseline for recreational use … and it doesn’t appear to be reverting much.”

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