Federal agencies want to help develop outdoor recreation economies
May 17, 2023
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is planning to develop outdoor recreation opportunities near national forests and grasslands, part of a broader Biden administration push to help communities reap economic rewards from the growing recreation sector.
Three USDA agencies — the Forest Service, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Office of Rural Development — signed a memorandum of understanding last fall pledging to collaborate on plans to develop outdoor recreation economies in “gateway communities” near national forests and grasslands.
The agency selected its final team to begin developing the first annual plan in mid-January, a Rural Development spokesperson said.
“We know that when we invest in rural and tribal communities and people, we create an economic ripple effect that benefits everyone,” the spokesperson said in a written statement.
Many rural communities near national forests and grasslands have experienced significant economic downturns in recent years. The multi-agency effort is meant to help those communities harness the economic power of outdoor recreation.
“We want to be intentional about making sure that they are getting economic, social and physical benefits,” Toby Bloom, the national program manager for travel, tourism, and interpretation with the Forest Service, said.
Some communities may have been reliant on a large employer that closed, forcing people to find work elsewhere and leading to a shrinking workforce that discourages further investment, Bloom said.
“If we can address that vicious cycle by creating opportunities, creating jobs, there’s a huge amount of jobs that are generated by recreation every year,” she added.
Bloom highlighted a mountain biking trail network near Ironton, Ohio, as an example of a community reorienting its economy around outdoor recreation tourism.
The USDA program is an acknowledgement from the government about the clear economic benefits of the outdoor recreation sector for rural areas, Chris Perkins, the senior director at the industry and nonprofit coalition group Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, said.
“What this partnership will do is just make the process of economic development around outdoor recreation a possibility for more communities,” Perkins said. “That will help demystify the process. And it will help them access funding and take on challenges before they arise.”
Funding for the initiative will come from existing USDA grant, loan and service programs, though specific figures have not been set, the Rural Development spokesperson said.
The spokesperson added that the agencies will prioritize projects that advance Biden administration goals to address climate change, environmental justice, racial equity and improved market opportunities.
“This is really an attempt to help those communities that are near public lands and water capitalize on the financial opportunities that exist,” the program manager said.
COVID-19 highlighted the importance of outdoor recreation, Bloom said. The pandemic’s early months saw an explosion in outdoor recreation. And while some rural communities handled the influx of tourists effectively, others were left scrambling to accommodate the jump in visitor numbers, she said.
“It’s kind of like America rediscovered its outdoors,” Bloom said. “And so as federal agencies, we need to help both the visitors have their best peak experience and also help those communities that are receiving visitors be able to manage that visitation and also benefit from it.”
President Barack Obama launched the Federal Interagency Council on Outdoor Recreation in 2011. The council, comprised of representatives from USDA, and the departments of Interior, Commerce and Defense, conducted the country’s first wide-scale economic analysis of the recreation economy.
Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, disbanded the council when he took office in 2017.
The Biden administration re-established the council last summer, laying the groundwork for the renewed partnership, Bloom said.
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