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More people than ever are going outside to recreate. The problem is they’re not going often enough

Outings for young families are declining, even with the help of Colorado programs designed to break down barriers to the outdoors
Skiers and snowboarders linger on the tundra below Peak 10 in the Tenmile Range, July 4, 2023, in Summit County. The Fourth of July Bowl tends to hold snow into the summer due to its aspect and elevation, which attracts the annual tradition to ski on July 4th. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

A few years ago, the outdoor industry was struggling to get more people outside after several decades of participation studies showing nearly half of Americans did not go outdoors to have fun.

The pandemic changed that and the latest study by the Boulder-based Outdoor Industry Association shows a record 168.1 million Americans — 55% of the population ages 6 and up — went outside for recreation in 2022. That’s a 2.3% increase over the previous record in 2021. Since January 2020, 14.5 million more Americans went outdoors to run, hike, bike, camp and participate in all sorts of other activities.

And those newcomers are increasingly diverse. The participation rate for Hispanic people reached 56% in 2022, up from 34% in 2015. The rate of participation for Black people reached 40.7% in 2022, up 5 percentage points over 2021. Last year 61% of LGBTQ people recreated outside, with more than 18 million participants, up from 15.8 million in 2021. And more seniors (defined as 55 and older) than ever before went outside to play, with 35% joining the ranks of the outdoor recreators, up from 28% in 2018.

There’s a lot to cheer about in outdoor recreation right now, but “don’t think we are out here doing a victory lap,” said Kent Ebersole, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The latest participation snapshot shows storms on the horizon. Younger Americans — ages 13 to 24 — are not getting outside. Outings for families with children are declining.

Thank you for recreating outdoors. Please come again. And again.

Americans logged 11.8 billion outdoor recreation outings in 2022 and while that number seems huge, it’s troubling. The frequency of those trips outdoors is declining. Ten years ago, the average number of outdoor recreation outings was 84.6 per participant. Now it’s down to 71.8.

The decline in younger folks getting outdoors to play harkens to the industry’s struggles around 2008 when participation in all categories was flat or declining.

Hard work to reach new outdoor recreation players and more diverse groups has helped, but still the industry is struggling to reach younger generations.

“Fast forward eight years when today’s 18-year-olds are 25. Will there then be three generations with anemic participation and does that spell a future where we go back to 2008 and are flat for a decade or more?” Ebersole said. “If we let another generation go by and we don’t talk to them and we don’t reach them, we are going to be in a world of hurt.”

The latest report shows increased diversity of young people and new participants, which credits the growing number of programs aimed at growing inclusivity in the outdoors.

In Colorado, Great Outdoors Colorado’s Generation Wild program has directed $47.8 million in lottery proceeds to 3,079 programs since 2015. Generation Wild was created to “break down barriers to the outdoors” with grants to community groups and a statewide campaign urging parents and kids to get outside. Since its inception Generation Wild has hosted 118,868 participants and created 827 career opportunities with jobs, internships and leadership training.

The GOCO board voted to continue the program and new grants will be announced later this month.

Land managers are adjusting plans to accommodate the growth in recreation. The Bureau of Land Management hosted 81 million visitors on its 245 million acres in 2022, up 40% from 2012 with almost a third of that increase occurring since 2020. The Forest Service counted 168 million nationwide visits in 2020, up from 160 million in 2012.

Both agencies are launching community-focused strategies around recreation.

The BLM’s new Blueprint for 21st Century Outdoor Recreation started last month with major shifts in how the agency prioritizes recreation on its 245 million acres. The BLM’s budget for recreation in 2022 was $60.2 million, or about 74 cents per visit, compared with 84 cents per visit in 2012. The new strategy will enable local land managers to partner with a growing roster of groups lined up to help ease costs or even fund recreational amenities and events.

The Forest Service a year ago launched its five-year “Reimagine Recreation” plan with this note: “Our public lands can also be a source of healing, inspiration, and purpose to bridge some of the divides and challenges our country has faced over the past few years.”

The challenge is to convert that growing army of outdoor users into advocates who can sway public policy, said Tania Lown-Hecht with the Outdoor Alliance, a coalition of national recreation and conservation organizations that pushes for legislation to protect outdoor spaces.

The OIA report should resonate with lawmakers, Lown-Hecht said, with evidence that more than half of Americans value natural spaces and “are invested in the future of public lands.”

“This should be a call to action to prioritizing this very important part of American infrastructure,” she said. “This should signal to lawmakers that conservation of public lands is a huge issue for Americans.”

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