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Federal funds help rural communities build an outdoor economy

Sandhill Cranes in a field.jpg
Kate Miyamoto
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Thousands of Greater sandhill cranes feed and rest in a barley field on Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Monte Viste, Colo. aims to use some of the federal funds to "increase tourism opportunities that tie into local assets like the annual Sandhill Crane Festival."

News brief

A federal program is giving about $30,000 to individual rural communities to help them develop outdoor recreation economies and revitalize main streets.

The program, aptly called Recreation Economy for Rural Communities, is overseen by the EPA, Forest Service and others. This year, it’s helping 25 communities, including two in the Mountain West: Monte Vista, Colo., and Butte, Mont.

In 2019, the program’s first year, it also helped Glenwood Springs, Colo., Grants, N.M., and Johnson Falls, Mont.

The program’s goals include helping with marketing, expanding trail networks, bolstering in-town amenities and improving public access to outdoor areas.

That support can help diversify rural economies and support local residents, according to Chris Perkins, senior director of industry coalition Outdoor Recreation Roundtable.

“It helps increase rural prosperity, it improves public health outcomes and it promotes environmental stewardship and conservation ethics,” Perkins said.

He said that’s especially true after the pandemic, as people flocked to the outdoors for their mental health and to socialize safely. Some now see that kind of recreation as a necessity and want to move to places where it’s within reach.

“We have a huge opportunity here. How can we harness the enthusiasm for -- and the benefits that come from -- increasing outdoor opportunities, while also setting the communities who provide these opportunities up for success in the long run?” he asked.

The ORR also supported half of the original 10 communities that participated in this program in 2019 with additional funding and has since created a toolkit to help others bolster their outdoor economies.

While a little support goes a long way in small towns, the hunger for financial aid far outpaces the available funding. Perkins said nearly 300 communities applied for the federal program, and only 35 total have been selected.

There is a bill in Congress that could give more resources to the Recreation Economy for Rural Communities program. Sponsored by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, the Rural Outdoor Investment Act includes $12.5 million for that program alone.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM 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.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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