Trends and Issues that Define Outdoor Recreation in Utah

Trends and Issues that Define Outdoor Recreation in Utah

Outdoor Recreation

Red rock mountains

Trends and Issues that Define Outdoor Recreation in Utah

Outdoor Recreation

From the powder-covered slopes of the northern Wasatch to the red rock wonderland of the state’s southern regions, Utah is known around the world for its outstanding outdoor recreation destinations and the unique experiences they provide. More than 2.5 million Utahns participate in outdoor recreation each year, with participation likely to grow in the years ahead. Despite the growing demand for outdoor recreation opportunities, the state lacks a comprehensive, statewide inventory of outdoor recreation amenities. Additionally, state appropriations to outdoor recreation providers, which support the development and maintenance of outdoor recreation infrastructure, have not kept up with demand.

A state-level synthesis of key metrics characterizing outdoor recreation within Utah can help facilitate a shared understanding of the problems and opportunities associated with outdoor recreation management. We briefly document these issues here and point to some unique opportunities that the Governor’s Office and the state legislature can take advantage of in their efforts to build policies and initiatives to enhance recreational amenities and experiences in the state. Through this synthesis, Utah State University and the state-funded Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, hope to build a shared understanding of the problems and opportunities associated with outdoor recreation policy, management, and promotion.

Growth in Participation

Takeaway

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Over 2.5 million Utahns participate in outdoor recreation each year, with visitation to Utah’s public lands consistently reaching record highs each year.

The demand for outdoor recreation on Utah’s public lands and waters has grown consistently over the past decade. The state’s park system, for example, has set annual attendance records each year since 2016, with attendance in 2020 topping 10 million visits (Figure 1). Despite the international travel restrictions caused by COVID-19, national park units in the state saw visitation levels consistent with recent trends. The most notable shift in demand for outdoor recreation within the state has not occurred at state and national parks, but at city and county park systems. During the pandemic, weekly visitation to local park and recreation resources has increased by an average of 83% relative to pre-pandemic levels (Figure 2). The trends across national, state, county, and municipal outdoor recreation resources are consistent; Utah’s parks and public lands are facing rising demand year over year.

Increase in annual visitations to Utah State Parks

Figure 1

Annual Visitation to Utah State Parks (2003-2020)


Data: Utah Division of Parks and Recreation & Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, Utah State University

Decrease in local park use due to Covid

Figure 2

A Change in local park use relative to pre-pandemic baseline (Feb 2020-Dec 2020)

Data: Google, Inc. & Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Utah State University

Quantifying the Supply of Outdoor Recreation Resources

Takeaway

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The state lacks a comprehensive, statewide understanding of outdoor recreation resources.

Despite the growing demand for outdoor recreation opportunities, the state lacks a comprehensive, statewide inventory of outdoor recreation amenities. Different state and federal agencies, as well as municipal and county governments, have other amenities. The development of a comprehensive, statewide inventory of outdoor recreation assets would enable more strategic investments by disbursement programs designed to invest state funds into the development of outdoor recreation infrastructure (e.g., the Utah Outdoor Recreation Grant, the Recreation Infrastructure Grant, and the Recreational Trails Program Grants Program).

A high-quality and authoritative inventory of statewide outdoor recreation assets would also enable the state to better compete for federal dollars distributed through the Land and Water Conservation Fund Program.

Strategic Investments in Outdoor Recreation Providers and Infrastructure Development

Takeaway

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Investments in outdoor recreation providers and infrastructure development are needed and should be made to projects and areas of the state where they will have the most impact.

While the demand for outdoor recreation has been consistently growing within the state, appropriations to state agencies to support the development and maintenance of outdoor recreation infrastructure have not followed suit. State investments to support the operation of the state’s park system, for example, are currently half of what they were 15 years ago (Figure 3). Legislative appropriations to the Division of Parks and Recreation are just over one-fifth of one percent of the state’s total budget, making proportional allocations to the state’s park system rank just below Kentucky and Missouri (Figure 4).

Relatively new state programs, like the Utah Outdoor Recreation Grant and the Recreation Infrastructure Grant, offer ways for the state to strategically invest in outdoor recreation resources. However, investments from these programs need to be strategically made in areas where they will have the most impact. For example, investments in trail infrastructure are needed in the state’s more populous counties, where there is an increasing demand for locally accessible outdoor recreation opportunities.

Operating cost decrease and revenue increase for Utah State Parks

Figure 3

Operating costs and revenues of Utah State Parks — (1998-2018)


Data: Smith, Miller, & Leung, 2020.

Graph of proportion of state budget for states for state parks

Figure 4

Proportion of State Budgets allocated to the state park systems — (2018)

Data: Smith, Miller, & Leung 2020.

Fostering a Sense of Stewardship through Outdoor Recreation

Takeaway

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Utah’s unique demographic profile can be leveraged to support an increased awareness of, and stewardship for, public lands.

Utah can be an exemplary state to document the benefits of outdoor recreation and natural landscapes on youth. Utah’s unique demographic profile, composed of relatively large families and a rapidly growing Hispanic and Latino population, means that more youth participate in outdoor recreation within Utah, relative to other states. Over one-fifth of all forest visits in the state are from youth under 20 (Figure 5). Consequently, state policies and programs focused on encouraging the large youth population to increase awareness of, and stewardship for, public lands could be particularly effective.

Age of vistors graph

Figure 5

Ages of forest visitors across each of the five national forests in Utah.

Data: USDA Forest Services; reported in Smith & Miller, 2021.

Enabling Gateway Communities to Capitalize on the Economic Benefits of Outdoor Recreation

Takeaway

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There is an opportunity to spur economic diversification and resilience in utah’s gateway communities through policies that incentivize investments in the professional, scientific, and technical services industry.

Utah’s wealth of outdoor recreation opportunities is supported by hundreds of small towns and cities located near public lands. These “gateway” communities face a distinct set of challenges relative to other rural cities and towns: housing affordability, average wages relative to cost of living, and a lack of resources and revenues, amongst others. Growing populations of retirees and remote workers in Utah’s gateway communities have caused real estate costs to increase, often leaving the local labor force priced out of the market. Locals increasingly find themselves in the position of commuting to jobs in gateway communities from more rural and affordable locations. This can be especially burdensome for many employees in gateway communities, given public transportation options are significantly less likely to be available and used in these areas. The difficulties experienced by Utah’s gateway communities are compounded by the fact their labor force tends to be concentrated in low-paying accommodation and food services jobs (Figure 6). There is an opportunity to spur economic diversification and resilience in Utah’s gateway communities through policies that incentivize investment in under represented industries, like professional, scientific, and technical services. Salaries and wages in these industries are significantly higher than in the accommodation, food services, arts, entertainment, and recreation industries (Figure 7).

proportion of labor force graph

Figure 6

Proportion of the labor force employed in jobs within the arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services industries in prominent gateway communities relative to non-gateway — (2010-2018)

Data: US Census Bureau; reported in Smith, & Miller, 2020.

mean earnings graph

Figure 7

Mean earnings in select industries within Utah’s gateway communities — (2019)



Data: US Bureau of Labor Statistics; reported in Smith & Miller, 2020.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR UTAH'S OUTDOOR RECREATION

Summary

The land resources of Utah are facing myriad challenges, but we can adapt to these changes through concerted and coordinated management. However, land management methods that have worked in the past and which are in use today are likely to become less effective in the future. Utah needs to forge a path—through science, management, and government action—that works specifically for the land types, ownerships, and vegetation of Utah. To respond to changing conditions, managers should consider a variety of

approaches and recognize that different solutions will be needed in different parts of the state. Multiple approaches will be needed, and should be tried; some will work better than others. Utah should adopt a strong emphasis on monitoring change to relatively unmanaged lands as well as monitoring the long-term effects of policy actions in the context of variable climate and changing human land use. Success in optimizing Utah’s land resources will need long periods of time to assess, whatever actions are taken.