Big Bucks Spent for Outdoors – Industry Association Numbers

Post by blogger | June 26, 2012      

We fun hogs here in the US of A spent $646 billion on outdoor recreation last year. That’s the mongo conclusion of the recently released Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) annual “Outdoor Recreation Economy” study. (PDF here)

OIA job comparison, outdoor recreation.

Chart excerpted from the OIA report, job comparisons by industry. I'd have thought oil and gas would employ more people in comparison, since they're the ones digging up the petroleum that's powering much of the outdoor industry!

Problem for interpretation: That 646 billion number includes everything from tourists buying jackets for sight seeing, all the way to a catch-all category of motorized recreation that OIA calls “off roading.” Indeed, while the numbers appear delightfully large to those of us who think getting people outdoors will save civilization (and is a nice way to make a living), the somewhat ill defined inclusion of petrotainment is disconcerting.

Not that I’m against motorized recreation as valid outdoor fun (as many of you know, and yes, Virginia, the problem is sustainability). But petrotainment is just so, well, different than human powered sports. With that in mind, I wish OIA would have grained their report a smidgen finer.

Why is that important? Idle curiosity, sure. But more, political issues such as public lands management are being based on recreation industry economics, and those decisions need to be founded on facts rather than fantasy. For example, many of us would like to see a public lands designation based on conservation AND varied recreation: something more accommodating than legal Wilderness. On the other hand, well respected people in the outdoor industry regularly advocate for more legal Wilderness, based on it ostensibly being important to economic gain from outdoor recreation. OIA’s report supports the notion that mixed use lands managed for conservation are more important economically than legal Wilderness, but it would be nice to have a firmer idea of how all that shakes out.

As they choose to break it down, OIA shows the most ($143,383,731,298) being spent on “Camping,” which we assume to be what you’d usually call “car camping,” supported by engines and tires, not backpacking. Also combine their “Off Road” and “Motorcycling” categories and you get $109,021,547,334 — that’s not including motorized fishing, boating and other water sports that require gasoline and machinery. Even their “Snowsports” category lumps snowmobiling in there with skiing! In other words, the gigantic dollar numbers numbers reported by OIA are pretty much those of recreation done petro style.

Okay, perhaps I’m asking something of this report that it’s not intended to provide. I’ll give it that. But still, in my mind the difference between human powered recreation and that powered by hydrocarbon fuel is so distinctive, you’d think they’d have arranged their categories a bit more along those lines. After all, once peak oil happens and petro fuel costs more than than fine wine, how will the outdoor recreation industry sustain? Probably not with ATV riding?

For an idea of how many skiers might go with human power, see this blog post. General numbers bandied about indicate that if you define backcountry skiing as including resort sidecountry, the number of backcountry skiers is in North America is in the millions. But if you define the category more strictly (perhaps that most of your vert is gained with muscle power), people say the number of backcountry skiers is somewhere around 500 to 800 thousand (with Europe of course being mobbed by millions of climbing skin operators.)

In view of all this, one has to conclude that OIA’s job is to booster the outdoor recreation industry in general, and they’ve thus “kitchen sinked” their reporting to inflate the numbers to gonzo levels. After all, according to OIA “More American jobs depend on trail sports (768,000) than there are lawyers (728,200) in the United States.” That, my friends, is hard to believe!

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5 Responses to “Big Bucks Spent for Outdoors – Industry Association Numbers”

  1. jerimy June 26th, 2012 11:29 am

    The job numbers for ‘trail sports’ will start to add up quickly when they probably count numbers like this:
    Motorcycle and ATVs use trails.
    ATV shop has sales/mechanics/etc plus ATVs use spark plugs.
    Spark plug manufacturer could have a large number of employees even though only a portion of its business goes to the ‘trail sports’ use. I doubt the numbers are proportioned according to percent of business in each segment.

    Just think about all the jobs needed to make the clothes, shoes, bikes, backpacks, trekking poles, etc. for human powered recreation, let alone adding in motor sports and equestrian users. Granted, much of this production isn’t done in the US.

  2. Caleb Wray June 26th, 2012 1:39 pm

    I like the spin. I wonder how much they paid the marketing company for this? Finance employs more like 8 million if you use the Dept of Labor Sats numbers. And Exxon Mobil alone produced $486 billion in revenue last year. Even using their numbers it shows that the industry is labor intensive, employing more people but making less money than health care or finance. I used to see a lot of these type of reports back in my Wall St days, most of them are well cooked before serving. Jobs are a hot topic though, perhaps Romney and Obama will start touting their outdoor recreation expansion programs.

  3. willis June 26th, 2012 2:20 pm

    “I’d have thought oil and gas would employ more people in comparison, since they’re the ones digging up the petroleum that’s powering much of the outdoor industry!”

    I bet your instincts are probably still on the money if we were able to look not at the job numbers themselves, but the total industry payroll and the per capital wage. Lots of outdoor recreation jobs involve ‘selling stuff’ (shop employees) or unskilled-to-semi-skilled services (think liftys, ski patrollers, raft guides, fish guides etc). These sorts of jobs tend to pay low hourly wages, rarely involve medical benefits, and are often non-existent during shoulder seasons—to the extent that they probably annualize somewhere around 20K-35K / year for a lot of folks.

    Numbers of people who have reasonably middle class outdoor jobs such as maybe working for corporate BD or Gore, or a regional rep for a ski company, or a full time hotel manager with 401K etc are probably exponentially less. In other words, if we made a pyramid of outdoor industry salaries versus number of workers at that salary, it would probably look miles wide at the bottom and taper pretty quick towards the top.

    O&G industry certainly has plenty of ‘grunt’ jobs out in the fields involving driving and other menial tasks, but even these probably annualize at a wage far above a ski patroller/raft guide without medical or 401K. So even though the job numbers are lower for O&G, I bet they can still claim a much larger economic impact on state or national GDP?

    At the end of the day, a few lawyers suiing the trail sports industry and their insurance companies for some BS claims probably get to take home nearly as much as the 768,000 folks who work for the industry. Feel like downloading a law school application anyone?

  4. Nick June 26th, 2012 6:17 pm

    All the employees in the outdoor recreation sector combined probably don’t earn as much as the top percentile of the finance sector!

  5. AndyC June 26th, 2012 7:09 pm

    Skepticism about the demand for and the moneys expended for outdoor recreation was behind the Republicans’ mandate for the Forest Passes for access to National Forest recreation sites that caused so much public outcry a few years ago. Nothing new. I remember 40 years ago when Sen. Scoop Jackson (D WA) managed to publish an extremely long and detailed analysis of public demand for outdoor recreation and projected future demands in the face of outright opposition to even its publishing by the other party. Now, if you really want to get into politics, discuss the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable and the ongoing movement to make all recreation on public lands private concessions (and turn over parks etc. to Disney Corp. etc.). I actually don’t know of anyone in either party who is still an advocate for public funding of recreation access.

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