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The government says COVID cost the outdoor recreation industry $156 billion in 2020. But did it really?

The annual Bureau of Economic Analysis shows the outdoor recreation economy fell 19.5% in 2020, but that includes big declines outside the recreation industry.

Fishing guides wait for their clients to arrive on the Gunnison River outside of 3 Rivers Resort in Almont, Colorado on July 28, 2021. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

The collapse of travel and public gatherings during the pandemic last year cost America’s surging outdoor recreation industry $156 billion. 

But that’s according to federal accounting. 

In a more traditional accounting of outdoor recreation that measures the economic contributions from people going camping, hiking, skiing, fishing, boating and hunting, the outdoor economy weathered the pandemic with aplomb.

“Really, this is a tale of two stories,” said Jess Turner, the executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, which works in Washington, D.C., for 35 outdoor recreation trade groups that represent 110,000 businesses. 

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Because the federal government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis counts outdoor recreation a lot differently than people inside the world of outdoor recreation, this is one of those stories that requires a few asterisks. 

For the fourth year in a row the Bureau of Economic Analysis on Tuesday released an annual assessment of the country’s golden outdoor recreation economy. Four years ago those numbers showed Americans’ fondness for playing outside fueling an industry bigger than fossil fuels. 

Asterisk #1: That’s because the bureau, to keep its sector-weighing tallies in order, tacks on all kinds of peripheral industries when it counts the economic contribution on outdoor recreation, like, for example, warehousing, tourism, dining and transportation. 

Landon Mayer is a Florissant-based outfitter who guides fishing trips along the South Platte River. He’s shown here in an Oct. 5, 2021 hiking over a tree that was washed down river in 2018 and came to rest along the banks of the Dream Stream at the Charlie Meyers State Wildlife Area. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The bureau’s 2020 outdoor recreation numbers on Tuesday showed an industry hamstrung by the pandemic. But what about all these reports from land managers and outdoor recreation advocates showing the pandemic driving record-high participation in outdoor activities and highest-ever sales of gear?

Asterisk #2: To tell that tale, first we need to understand how the federal government counts.

Four years ago, when the Bureau of Economic Analysis took on the job of tracking the outdoor industry, it did it the same way it tracks industries like energy and health care. 

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It tallies the contributions of “conventional outdoor recreation” industries, such as boating, fishing, RVing, skiing, climbing, hiking and camping. Then it counts “other” outdoor recreation, like gardening and guided touring, and folks going to amusement parks, festivals, concerts and sports games. And finally almost half of the bureau’s accounting for outdoor recreation comes from “supporting” industries, which includes trucking, warehousing, home construction and tourist activities like dining, lodging, shopping for souvenirs and transportation. 

During the pandemic, the economic output from those conventional outdoor recreation activities barely changed from the record year of 2019. Increases in spending on boating, fishing, biking, RVing and motorcycling left the 2020 economic output of “conventional recreational” industries down only 2% from 2019. 

Boulder resident India Wood packs out her tent for a full day of hiking through the Castle Peaks Wilderness Study Area Saturday, July 18, 2020, near Wolcott. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But the economic contribution from people visiting festivals and sporting events, as well as anything related to travel, collapsed spectacularly in 2020. Add in the supply-chain issues bedeviling the warehousing and trucking industries and the impact of the 2020 pandemic looks like it sunk outdoor recreation. But that’s using the Bureau of Economic Analysis perspective.

“We do our recreation economy data just like every other sector to compare apples to apples,” said Jeannine Aversa, the head of communications for the bureau. “The framework we use to deduce figures for outdoor recreation is the exact same as arts and culture and travel and tourism.”

So the federal government’s wide-angle view of the outdoor recreation industry, which was growing much faster than the national economy before the pandemic, shows it losing its mojo last year, falling 19% compared to a 3.4% decline in the overall U.S. economy last year. 

In 2020, outdoor recreation businesses and the industries that support outdoor recreation created $689 billion in economic output, compared with $845 billion in 2019. The outdoor recreation industry’s 2020 contribution to the country’s gross-domestic product — which the bureau defines as that economic output minus the cost of supplies and services to create that output — was $374.2 billion, down from $465.2 billion in 2019. The industry’s 4.3 million workers make up 3% of the country’s workforce.

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Asterisk # 3: The Bureau of Economic Analysis adjusted its 2019 output number to $845 billion, up from the previously projected $788 billion, after weighing additional public and private information in its accounting.

The recreation industry, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, contributed $9.6 billion to Colorado’s economy in 2020, accounting for 2.5% of the state’s total gross domestic product. That’s down from $12.2 billion in 2019, which was 3.1% of the state’s economy. The 120,000 workers in the Colorado recreation economy in 2020 marked a 19.5% decline from 149,000 in 2019. Every state saw declines in outdoor recreation jobs in 2020, largely due to the bureau aligning those jobs with the pandemic-ravaged service and hospitality industries.

Bikers on the Platte River Trail near Elyria-Swansea on Sunday, August 8, 2021 in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

But ask anyone in the business of championing the outdoor industry and they say 2020 was a banner year that revealed the resilience of an industry that drives many rural economies across the country. Granted, those outdoor recreation cheerleaders are an optimistic lot who tend to see the rosiest hue of most scenarios.

“You just have to dive deeper” into the numbers, Turner said. 

For example, look at participation. After years of effort to get younger, more urban and diverse populations interested in recreating outdoors, the pandemic delivered

“In fact, this was the single largest increase in any year we’ve found and we’ve been tracking this for 15 years,” said Lise Aangeenbrug, the executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association. 

For years, barely half of all Americans participated in outdoor recreation. Last year, the Outdoor Industry Association counted a record 53% of Americans heading outdoors to play. 

Sales of licenses for hunting and fishing climbed in 2020, reversing long-term trends. Retail reports from this year show camping equipment, trail shoes and other outdoor gear pacing toward yet another record, Aangeenbrug said. 

“Early indications are that the trends will continue into 2021,” she said. 


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