Outdoor recreation in Washington generates $21.6 billion each year

Washingtonians love to play outdoors, especially in local parks and public waters.

That is the basic conclusion of a report released earlier this month that studied the effect outdoor recreation has on the state’s economy.

The study was done for the State Recreation and Conservation Office by Earth Economics in Tacoma. Requested by state Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island), this is the first comprehensive look at the state’s recreational economy.

The researchers determined there were about 446 million participant days spent playing outdoors a year, resulting in annual spending of $21.6 billion.

Visiting local parks had the highest number of participation days, almost 190 million days, and public waters generated the most expenditures, about $180 million.

On average, according to the report, we each spend an estimated 56 days a year playing outdoors. That includes day trips to Mount Rainier National Park, bird watching at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, walking amid the geologic features at Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve, fishing for chinook salmon aboard a Westport charter boat, hiking the trails at Tolmie State Park, and digging for razor clams at Ocean Shores.

Breaking down the spending further, researchers found that $12.5 billion is spent directly here in Washington — the rest is spent via out-of-state retailers and the like. When factoring indirect economic contributions and wages generated, Washington gains $20.5 billion from outdoor recreation each year.

All that spending helps support more than 198,000 jobs statewide.

But the report also points out that outdoor recreation plays a much greater role in our lives, beyond the economics.

In the executive summary, the report authors wrote: “Outdoor recreation markets help connect urban and rural communities and, as identified by the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Outdoor Recreation in its final report (2014), the benefits of outdoor recreation translate into ‘healthier kids, lowered health care costs, less absenteeism in the work place, and decreases in juvenile crime.’ ”

In other words, playing outdoors makes us happier and healthier.

That is certainly not a news flash.

But this data should help decision makers when it comes to issues such as funding state parks, setting recreational fishing allocations, and maintaining access to public lands.

Take, for example, the Nisqually-Mashel State Park land near Eatonville. Development of the park’s 1,300 acres has languished for decades as Washington State Parks has dealt with dwindling support from the state’s general fund.

This report shows, however, that even making some minimal investments would begin generating revenue by park visitors. They’ll need gas to get there and snacks to eat while hiking a trail, boosting local businesses. They’ll need a Discover Pass to park, helping fund the agency. They might buy binoculars to go wildlife watching, or fishing equipment if they want to wet a line.

Some of the same arguments can be made for providing a year-round campground at Mount Rainier. The parks’ only options — Sunshine Point and Ipsut Creek — were lost in the 2006 flooding. In the eight years since, budget cuts have forced park managers to shorten the camping season at the remaining campgrounds and left them lacking the time or resources to find a year-round alternative.

In other words, if you spend the money on these places, they will come. And if they come, they will spend their money.

There is no doubt we Washingtonians love the outdoors. Why else would we tolerate six or seven months of rain a year? This report, however, shows that passion also is a major economic engine. Our land managers and holders of the purse strings should heed these numbers as well. Investing in public lands is money well spent.

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640