Outdoor recreation economy breaks records in latest government data

The near trillion dollar industry provides 3 percent of all American employment, over 4.5 million jobs
Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in New Mexico
Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in New Mexico (photo: BLM/Sherman Hogue / cc2.0).

If you spent any time during the past year or so on a river, hiking one of your favorite trails, seeking to reserve a backcountry campsite, or just trying to buy that new fly rod you’ve had your eye on — only to be greeted by a lineup of drift boats at the put-in, crowds, filled up reservation queues, and product shortages — you likely already guessed that 2021 was a year of firsts for the outdoor recreation industry. A new report released last week by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) has confirmed as much, revealing record-breaking output for the outdoor recreation economy. The BEA’s latest data indicates that the outdoor recreation industry accounted for 1.9 percent of national GDP in 2021, contributing a whopping total of $862 billion to the U.S. economy, the largest output since the BEA began releasing data on the outdoor recreation industry. Perhaps more importantly, according to the BEA report, the outdoor recreation economy provides over 3 percent of American employment — over 4.5 million jobs.

Boating/fishing was the single largest contributor to the outdoor industry’s near trillion dollar economy, accounting for over $50 billion in gross output. It also topped the list in 27 of the 50 U.S. states, with Florida, California, and Texas leading the pack.

“The outdoor recreation economy nearing $1 trillion in economic value is impressive yet unsurprising. With roughly 50 million anglers across the United States, recreational fishing is an important aspect of outdoor recreation, and we are proud to be part of an industry that is both growing in popularity and value,” said Glenn Hughes, President of the American Sportfishing Association. “The BEA data reflects how important it is for Americans to continue to have access to clean waters and abundant fisheries, and we are honored to play an important role in growing our nation’s economy. ASA looks forward to increasing participation rates alongside the rest of the outdoor recreation industry and getting more Americans outside or on the water.”

Hunting/shooting/trapping was the third largest contributor, generating over $18 billion in gross economic output.

Many of the states where outdoor industry plays an outsized role in both economic output and employment, in addition to being coveted destinations for fly anglers, are also some of the states where public lands are the primary drivers of outdoor recreation, such as Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah.

Outdoor recreation as a percentage of state GDP
Outdoor recreation as a percentage of state GDP (image credit: BEA).

According to Jessica Turner, president of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR), “The BEA data underscores how important it is to invest in public lands, waters and recreation infrastructure from coast to coast and for recreation activities of all types. From the creation of jobs and increased profit for small businesses in local economies, to larger boons to our national economy, this sector is a consistent driver, even in times of economic uncertainty. The strength of the outdoor recreation economy reflects what many in the industry have long known to be true: there are infinite benefits that come from more people spending time outdoors, and they’ll only grow with continued investment.”

The growth of outdoor recreation economy also dramatically outpaced that of the U.S. economy as a whole, more than tripling national GDP growth. According to the BEA report, “Inflation-adjusted ("real") GDP for the outdoor recreation economy increased 18.9 percent in 2021, compared with a 5.9 percent increase for the overall U.S. economy, reflecting a rebound in outdoor recreation after the decrease of 21.6 percent in 2020.”

Growth of outdoor recreation economy compared to national GDP
Growth of outdoor recreation economy compared to national GDP (image credit: BEA).

Commenting on the BEA’s report, Katie McKalip, President of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, said, “Our members, which include more than 600 outdoor media across the country, saw an explosion of interest in outdoor activities over the past few years – including expanded coverage by mass media in outdoor recreation. It’s been excellent to be able to reach even more people to inspire them to get outdoors – and ultimately help conserve our precious outdoor spaces.”