Recreation continues to play an important and growing role in Wyoming’s economy, according to a report released July 26 by the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade organization.
Outdoor recreation generates $5.6 billion in annual consumer spending in the state, according to Southwick Associates, the market-research firm that conducted the study. That’s up more than $1 billion from four years ago. Recreation generates $1.6 billion in wages and salaries, compared to $1.4 billion four years ago, and $514 million in state and local tax revenue, up from $300 million the last time the organization released a similar report.
The study also showed recreation provides about 50,000 jobs in Wyoming, employing about 8.5 percent of the state’s population.
Only Alaska has a higher percentage of people working in the outdoor industry, according to Outside magazine. The reported 73 percent of people in Wyoming who participate in outdoor recreation each year puts the state fourth highest in the ranking of resident recreation enthusiasts.
“None of it surprises me,” said Walt Gasson, director of endorsed businesses for Trout Unlimited. “We would be naïve if we were surprised. The economic measure here is merely confirmation of what we kind of all know in terms of the non-quantitative picture of what we’re all about as a people and as a state.”
The numbers are particularly notable now as the state grapples with trying to diversify its economy, Gasson said. It’s a cyclical issue. When the energy industry declines people always talk about what can be done, and emphasizing recreation and tourism is “always our go-to,” he said. It’s why people come to the state and why people live in Wyoming, he said.
The numbers are a reminder of what people in Wyoming value, and lawmakers should consider them when making policy that could impact recreation access, Gasson said. To Gasson, it’s not about doing something else as much as it is about protecting what is already in place, specifically public land access.
“If you can look at those numbers and still believe it’s a good deal to divest our public lands … if you can look at that and think, ‘oh, we can do better if those public lands are in private ownership,’ that’s ridiculous and simply not true,” Gasson said.
Instead, the state should find ways to better market Wyoming’s recreation opportunities and find ways to support businesses in the industry.
The numbers are important even if they confirm what most people know, said Jeff Smith, an outfitter from Sundance and president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association.
The organization hired Southwick Associates, the same company that conducted the Outdoor Industry Association’s research, to do a survey investigating the economic impact of big game hunting in the state. The study, completed in the winter, showed big game hunting contributed more than $28 million to local and state taxes, supported more than 3,000 jobs and brought more than $224 million into the state — just in retail sales in 2015.
“It was like ‘holy mackerel,’” Smith said when he saw the report. The numbers were much higher than he expected.
The organization solicited the study to show hard numbers on what guides and outfitters already know: big game hunting is big money for the entire state, Smith said. The numbers in the study, which include breakdowns between resident and non-resident hunters, could help shape policy on how the state manages hunting permits.
“It’s a tool for us,” he said of the study. “But it’s an educational thing for hunting on the whole.”
As an outfitter, Smith directly benefits from people who come to the state for guided hunting trips, but his entire community also is impacted. He employs people in Sundance to work at a lodge, his guests spend money at local stores and his guides buy groceries in town.
“It’s a trickle-down deal,” he said.
That economic reverberation is certainly felt throughout recreation-destination Lander, said Brian Fabel, executive director of the Lander Chamber of Commerce.
There are businesses with direct ties to outdoor recreation in Lander, such as the National Outdoor Leadership School, a major employer in Fremont County. But other businesses also reap the benefits. Students come to Lander for NOLS trips and eat at restaurants and shop at stores before leaving on expeditions or returning home. People who come to Lander to climb or hike also visit businesses to stock up on supplies.
“Recreation is an integral backbone for economic development for the whole Lander community,” Fabel said.
Recreation opportunities also bring and keep people and businesses in town. For example, Maven, a company that builds binoculars and spotting scopes sold across the country, is based in Lander because it was started by people who wanted to stay close to the mountains and the associated recreation opportunities, Fabel said.
“Recreation is great for bringing in visitors, but it’s also great for the people who live here,” he said. “That’s why they live here. That’s why they start businesses here.”
Fabel said he thought the state was already working to better support the recreation economy, especially with the creation of Gov. Matt Mead’s Recreation Task Force.
“I hope that energy continues to remain strong and continues to rebound, but I think we need to look at diversification for the overall economy,” he said. And that means looking at the impact of recreation.