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Study: Federal outdoor recreation spending not keeping up with need, could decline further

The shore of Redfish Lake with the Sawtooth Mountains in the background.
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
Redfish Lake is one of the most popular destinations in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area

The outdoor recreation industry says the federal government isn’t spending enough to support the important economic sector – and that the problem could get worse.

The Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR) commissioned Southwick Associates to assess the current state of recreation funding, as well as threats to it. Researchers there found that between several agencies, some $9.4 billion was spent in fiscal year 2022.

But the report notes that’s not enough to address the massive $26 billion deferred maintenance backlog, which it estimates could jump to $34 billion in the next couple decades – even if spending increases at the rate of inflation.

“Looking at the trends as a researcher, what I see is the neglect in the data,” said Rob Southwick, president of the firm hired by ORR.

Among his worries is that some revenue streams that support recreation – like taxes on fossil fuels – are uncertain.

“As we shift away from fossil fuels over time, how are we going to replace those fees?” he said. “So the problem could become worse.”

Roughly 20% of recreation funding comes from such sources, according to his firm’s analysis.

Southwick Associates also found that recreation funding grows much more slowly than federal spending in general, and that public lands have been seeing historic levels of visitation, putting additional pressure on recreation infrastructure like campgrounds, trails and boat docks.

“We need to have an adequate investment to keep this recreation economy thriving,” said ORR President Jessica Wahl Turner. “And imagine if we were actually to fund it well, imagine the economic impact we could have.”

Federal data from last fall show that the outdoor recreation economy accounts for some 2.2% of the country’s GDP.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.

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