There is a renewed connection Americans have with the great outdoors.
Last year marked a turning point: the highest recorded number of new and returning participants in outdoor recreation. More than half of Americans ages 6 and older participated in at least one outdoor activity in 2021, for a total of 164.2 million participants.
The number of outdoor participants has increased by 6.9% since 2020, with 60 million more people visiting national parks in 2021 compared to the previous year. This resurgence in outdoor participation is also fueling an economic boon across states, as the outdoor economy contributes $862 billion to the economy in 2021 — $173 billion more than last year — and will improve the health and livelihoods of 4 Supported .5 million Americans and their families.
However, these opportunities are not without challenges. The dramatic increase in visitor numbers to national parks, national monuments and public lands, as well as waterways, has resulted in overcrowding, congestion and a huge strain from aging or inadequate infrastructure. For example, Shenandoah National Park — known for its scenic hiking trails and vast migratory valleys — set visitor records but struggled to find support for the flow of visitors and day-to-day operations.
Yellowstone National Park – the crown jewel of America’s national parks – saw a dramatic 28% increase in visitor numbers over the course of 2020, straining budgets and resources. Simply put, this newfound demand is stretching current parking systems and restricting access to these spaces for many residents.
In addition, the number of those who participated in outdoor leisure activities 51 times or more in the past 12 months has decreased from 71.9% in 2007 to 58.7% of the participant base in 2021. The role of overcrowding and underinvestment cannot be underestimated by these “core” outdoor enthusiasts.
A similar dilemma exists for millions of people who cannot walk or bike from a green space, many of whom live in historically disenfranchised and underrepresented communities. Although the number of Americans who are discovering outdoor recreation is becoming more diverse, there is still a long way to go.
Currently, 72% of outdoor recreational participants are white. If the outdoor participant base does not become more diverse over the next 30 years, the proportion of the population who participate in outdoor recreation could fall from 54% today to less than 40% by 2060. Increasing the accessibility of urban natural spaces and ensuring centers are welcoming, culturally relevant and co-created with the community members for whom these areas will serve should be a priority to ensure that the outdoors is enjoyed by all, regardless of zip code, background or income .
Sustaining the success of America’s outdoor industry, meeting tomorrow’s challenges, and demonstrating the value of inclusion in all outdoor spaces will require necessary investments and policies to meet the needs of a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts.
Luckily, leaders on Capitol Hill are hearing the call with a historic outdoor recreation package known as America’s Outdoor Recreation Act. This bipartisan legislation — the most sweeping since President John F. Kennedy was in the White House — would directly affect millions of people who don’t have access to safe outdoor spaces or face other barriers to outdoor equality. The bill would bring in important federal investments in recreational infrastructure and public parks, and take steps to ensure America’s nature is open, sustainable, and equally accessible to all. This package is designed to recognize Americans’ growing involvement in outdoor recreation and support the many economic benefits of the industry.
Specifically, this measure aims to achieve its lofty goals by extending states’ open hours to the public, supporting infrastructure such as parks and bike lanes, and using real-time data to extend the outdoor recreation season. It would also improve and upgrade state recreation infrastructure by identifying and demonstrating solutions to improve broadband connectivity at developed recreation areas.
Through outdoor programs, public political engagement, and cross-industry collaboration, we can make a difference on these issues.
Addressing outdoor justice in our country must be a priority. We can and must do better. This bipartisan bill makes massive strides toward that effort while also having the potential to boost tourism and workforce development opportunities in communities across America. These are some reasons why America’s Outdoor Recreation Act should be enacted.
Kent Ebersole is the Executive Director of the Outdoor Industry Association. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.