Lander, the state’s 13th largest city with 7,500 residents, sits in a river valley in close proximity to a number of rugged features – including limestone cliffs, pocky boulders, overhanging walls and alpine peaks.
Each year, thousands of climbers flock to Lander to scale these rocks, pumping $4.5 million into the Fremont County economy on housing, transportation, retail and grocery shopping, and supporting 51 jobs with approximately 37,000 climbing-related visits.
Those numbers were revealed this fall in an economic impact study led by James Maples, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University. The report placed a tangible emphasis on something climbers in the region have long known, said Justin Iskra, executive director of the Central Wyoming Climbers’ Alliance: They represent an economic force to be reckoned with.
“That kind of puts us on the map where we can sit down with more and more people and have more important conversations because we’re bringing in a lot of money for Fremont County,” Iskra said.
Iskra has company in the camp of outdoor recreation advocates flexing their economic muscles. Since late October, a flurry of reports has illustrated the ever-growing economic impact of outdoor recreation. Some are overall, showing that Wyoming is among the top US states for outdoor recreation based on GDP. Some focus on the state, citing, for example, the economic contributions of nonresident snowmobilers in 2020-2021 ($71.4 million). And some are more granular, like the Lander climbing study.
Taken together, industry cheerleaders say, the numbers point to an opportunity for Wyoming to seize the momentum and develop a more robust outdoor leisure sector that aligns with community interests. That could mean anything from pressuring Congress to pass federal legislation to mobilizing State House support for an outdoor recreation trust fund.
“I think what we’re seeing is the inherent value that the outdoor recreation economy has in a state like Wyoming,” said Patrick Harrington, manager of the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Office, in a press release. “People across the state look to this industry as a vehicle for economic diversification and vitality for our local and state economies.”
Of the recent reports, the latest statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis measuring the outdoor leisure economy caused quite a stir. BEA figures showed that the outdoor recreation economy accounted for $450 billion of US gross domestic product in 2021, or 1.9%. That’s $74 billion more than in 2020 — a 19% increase during a time when the overall U.S. economy was growing 5.9%.
Outdoor recreation boosted Wyoming’s GDP by $1.49 billion in 2021, up from $1.25 billion in 2020, according to the BEA. At 3.6%, Wyoming ranked sixth among U.S. states for the portion of its economy fueled by outdoor recreation.
Employment in Wyoming’s sector also saw an increase from 14,187 to 15,285 jobs, accounting for 5.4% of the state’s total employment. Since 2020, outdoor recreation employment in Wyoming has increased by 18.4% compared to a 13.1% increase in the United States.
The release of the report was closely followed by new figures from the Outdoor Foundation, which painted a picture of unprecedented levels of participation in outdoor recreation. According to the 2022 Outdoor Participation Trends report, 164.2 million, or 54%, of Americans ages 6 and older participated in at least one outdoor recreational activity in 2021, “the highest number of participants ever.”
Kelly Davis, director of research for the Outdoor Industry Association, expects a drop, she said. “2020 was huge,” she said. “So I expected it to go down, but that didn’t happen. We have an increase of 2.2%.”
This suggests outdoor recreation is “sticky,” according to Davis — once someone starts engaging, they’re likely to keep going.
Wyoming-specific reports also provided eyebrow-raising numbers. A 2020-2021 Wyoming Snowmobiler’s Survey concluded that non-resident, resident and outfitter customer snowmobilers contributed a total of $193 million in state spending in that single season. A 2021 Wyoming Off-Road Vehicle Recreation Report prepared for the state estimated total spending related to resident and nonresident OHV drivers in 2021 at $296 million.
That kind of data arms industry cheerleaders with compelling lobbying arguments in support of outdoor recreation, proponents said. For in addition to the economic prospects, unprecedented activity on public lands has also placed increasing strain on facilities, pathways and resources.
With that comes “a responsibility to manage these visits and economic growth in a thoughtful, sustainable and equitable manner,” said Adam Cramer, CEO of the Outdoor Alliance. His organization has one goal in mind: America’s Outdoor Recreation Act, a bipartisan law co-sponsored by US Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyoming).
The bill seeks to improve America’s outdoor recreation economy through steps such as: establishing a pilot program for public-private partnership agreements to upgrade state campgrounds; Ensuring access to federal land through more opportunities for non-motorized and motorized access; and ensuring certain recreational opportunities, such as rock climbing and shooting ranges, in states.
Barrasso’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but he called the legislation “a monumental achievement for all who enjoy our public lands and shared natural resources.”
“It includes numerous provisions to improve access to the great outdoors, streamline and simplify governmental processes, and improve America’s recreational infrastructure,” Barrasso said, adding the law “will help Americans enjoy everything Wyoming has to offer, better to enjoy.”
Outdoor Alliance’s Cramer believes the BEA data will give Congress a nudge to pass the legislation during the lame duck session.
Things have come together — robust economic data, bipartisan support, intelligent management solutions — to create a valuable opportunity, Cramer said.
“I see that the stars may be lining up,” he said. The Outdoor Alliance, he said, is focused on teaching people that “there is a palpable political will to do something positive and encourages everyone to remind their lawmakers, ‘This is something pretty cool. It’s quite positive and will result in benefits for everyone.’”
The data could also help bring statewide proposals across the finish line, Harrington of the Outdoor Recreation Office told WyoFile. These include an additional $400,000 budget request for outdoor recreation, as well as proposed legislation to create an outdoor recreation trust fund that could be used to award grants for outdoor recreation infrastructure, among other things.
Back in Fremont County, Iskra said solid economic numbers are key “because we can have some of the conversations that … we couldn’t have in the past because we were just laid off.”
It could help climbers gain an audience with groups like the Fremont County Commission, he said. “I think that just sets the stage for a lot more climbing to be done in Fremont County.”
After Wyoming’s monumental 2020-21 years of visitation, the trend appears to be cooling. Yellowstone National Park, which saw a record 4.9 million visitors in 2021, has seen a drop in visitor numbers — although that could be due to destructive flooding that shut down much of the park. Yellowstone reported 3.2 million visitors in the first 10 months of 2022, compared to 4.8 million at the same time in 2021.
Visitation has also slowed in state parks, which saw huge increases in the first two years of the pandemic. During a meeting of the State Parks and Cultural Resources Commission in November, Deputy Director Dave Glenn said his office estimates 2022 visitor numbers will be about 4.8 million, down about 600,000 from 2021 — but still about 5% above the five-year average.
There’s also an undercurrent of caution that runs through the discussion of Wyoming as an outdoor recreation destination, as many hope to avoid overwhelming crowds.
“That’s a fine line, isn’t it?” asked Iskra of the Central Wyoming Climbers’ Alliance. “They want to bring in money. But… I also want to go rock climbing and have some cars in the parking lot. That’s the beauty of Wyoming.”
As participation in nature continues to increase, strategic economic development will be critical to enhancing the experience on public lands and reducing overcrowding, Harrington said.
“Our office is really committed to making sure that all of the nationwide growth…comes from the communities,” he said, and that’s where the nationwide network of outdoor rec collaborations comes in.
His office plans to announce the recipients of the first round of Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Grant Program winners by early 2023, he said. This program will award $14 million in grants for outdoor rec infrastructure projects; After opening the first round, it received nearly $72 million in inquiries.
Harrington believes the demand is evidence, among other evidence, that the energy around outdoor recreation is here to stay.
“We see that outdoor recreation is a resilient economy and a significant part of Wyoming’s gross domestic product as a whole,” he said.