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Too Big to Fail

Will the $1-trillion outdoor recreation industry save wild places or trample them?

The term outdoor industry gets tossed around a lot and I certainly know plenty of outdoorsy people who hate it. After all, what exactly is it? The term industry itself pulls such double duty—it is a state-flag motto proclaiming good work and the ability to care for citizens economically but, as we have learned in this era of climate-change-fueled wildfires and overconsumption, it also carries the weight of our species relentless, ever-ravenous burden on the planet. In the words of the great biologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson, “The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.” Hello, outdoor industry.

Beyond that, is the outdoor industry even a unified thing? Is it simply people who sell packs and climbing shoes? Does it include hunters and bass boats, guiding services and restaurants, the cars that we buy and fuel we use just so we can haul skis and bikes off to once ecologically dynamic places now focused on nothing but fun? Over the past few years, Americans have also had to face the inherent problem that outdoor recreation is certainly a privilege, that racism and elitism have rotted at the core of some of the most important conservation movements. Playing outdoors, that thing that so many of us—me included—feel is so essential to who we are and how we relate to both our culture and the world around us has to come with some sense of responsibility, for people who have been denied it and for the natural world which is feeling the pressure of recreation.

To take a step back, it has been essential for the outdoor industry to tell the rest of the nation just what a force it is both economically and culturally. For decades, the lesser impacts of recreation have paled in comparison to the extractive industries, which held sway with lawmakers due to their economic windfall and supposed jobs they created while leaving only destruction behind. In 2017, the Outdoor Industry Association was finally able to gain some traction against extractive industries in the halls of Congress by showing that it created $887 billion in economic impact. Those of us who dedicate our lives to the outdoors needed that ammunition to fight against the still ongoing destruction and degradation of public lands. Money talks.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis declared that the outdoor recreation economy hit $1.1 trillion in output in 2022. That should be reason to rejoice—and on many levels it is—but it also seems to serve as a warning that more and more we are simply seeing wild lands and nature in terms of dollars and jobs. More people are getting outdoors. That is good. That is what we wanted. But at the same time, if the outdoors is nothing but a playground, then is recreation and the outdoor industry just the latest more subtle form of our species trampling the complexity of life on this precious planet? Do ecosystems and wild animals and even water itself have a right to exist without commodifying them? How can the outdoor industry do what’s so hard for so many other industries to do—to hold back when they threaten to destroy their source of wealth?

I believe the $1 trillion bellwether represents an opportunity. We can start rethinking the place of recreation on public lands. We can still play, but we need to do it mindfully. This most likely will not be what we want most. There may need to be more management and permits, but we need to prioritize the right of the land to exist as something that has value in no economic value. And then when we get out and ski or hike or bike, we can find better ways to do something most industries don’t talk about—share it.

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