Say, What?! Americans Spend More on the Great Outdoors Than on Gasoline

United States’ overlooked economic powerhouse is outdoor recreation.

Trails like these provide more jobs than the legal profession. (Photo: Jordan Siemens/Getty Images)
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Americans may have a reputation for being gas-guzzling, resource-burning city slickers, but new research suggests we spend our hard-earned dollars on some remarkably outdoorsy pursuits.

Americans devote more money to enjoying the outdoors than buying gasoline, purchasing pharmaceutical drugs, or owning cars. More than 44 percent of us make outdoor recreation a priority, adding up to an annual economic impact of $646 billion, according to a recent report by the Outdoor Industry Association. (By comparison, Americans buy $354 billion worth of gas and other fuels.)  

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Outdoor recreation supports 6.1 million jobs and a combined $80 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenue. More American jobs depend on trail sports (768,000) than there are lawyers (728,200) in the U.S., according to the report.

If spending patterns reflect values, then Americans care much more about the outdoors than current federal funding reflects, or than anyone gives them credit for.

“The biggest takeaway is that protecting our public lands, waters, and trails is more than just about the land. It’s about preserving and protecting economies, communities, and people whose lives depend on having great places to play outside,” Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the Outdoor Industry Association, told TakePart. 

Activities quantified in the research include bicycling, camping, fishing, hunting, motorcycling, snow sports, wildlife viewing, and more.

While previous economic analyses have interpreted outdoor activities narrowly, the new study considers the broad economic impact of outdoor recreation, including the design, development, marketing, and manufacturing of gear, sales linked to retailers and wholesalers of outdoor equipment, expenditures for going on a trip to use equipment, purchasing of licenses and supplies, and costs associated with leisure and hospitality. A caveat is that the study was commissioned by a trade association representing outdoor retailers and brands. You can read their technical report and methodology here.

The numbers are impressive, and it appears that more and more Americans are taking advantage of the country’s natural resources. Many sectors of the economy contracted during the great recession, but outdoor recreation grew by 5 percent between 2005 and 2011. 

Unfortunately, Congress doesn’t seem to be taking the hint. Devastating budget cuts loom for the nation’s 398 national parks, monuments, and historic sites, as well as federal conservation activities and fishery management.    

“Environmental spending—including spending on fisheries—has been under major attack in recent austerity measures, which would suggest that Congress does not believe they are priorities for the American people,” says Allison Ford, director of strategy at the Marine Fish Conservation Network.

The Office of Management and Budget has predicted that sequestration will cut $2.603 billion from the federal agencies that manage hundreds of millions of acres of land and oceans in 2013, according to a Center for American Progress report.  

The cuts will likely cause some closures to national parks, which draw 800,000 visitors every day. The National Park Service has estimated that $32 million will be lost every day that the parks remain closed.  

A Nature Conservancy poll found that more than four in five people in the U.S. consider it a patriotic duty to protect natural resources, and that many Americans understand that there are economic benefits to conservation. But they will have to make their priorities more widely known. 

“In order to keep these public resources in good shape for the American public to continue to enjoy (and spend money on), it’s essential that we continue to invest in their management,” Ford said. “Americans have a long history of valuing our amazing natural heritage. It should come as no surprise that we spend money in order to better enjoy it, and the government could get some major bang for its buck if it matched us in that.”

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