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Forest Fun = Big Bucks

Forest Fun = Big Bucks

New research says human-powered outdoor recreation on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests is not just fun but serious business, generating about $392 million each year in tourist spending that supports some 4,150 full- and part-time jobs in area communities and $112 million in annual wages.

The research consists of a group of studies commissioned by the Outdoor Alliance, a nonprofit coalition made up of organizations including American Whitewater, the International Mountain Bicycling Association, the American Alpine Club and others, and committed to protecting public lands. It plans to use the results to argue why human-powered recreation should be a top priority for the U.S. Forest Service as it works on an updated management plan for the 3 million acres that make up the GMUG.

“The outdoor recreation resources in the GMUG inspire visitors from around the world,” Adam Cramer, executive director of Outdoor Alliance, said in a news release. “What is clear from our research is that not only do the mountains, crags, rivers, and trails provide amazing outdoor adventures, they also enable a ton of economic benefit to the local communities around the GMUG. We are excited to share these powerful economic insights with the USFS as they partner with the public to create a new forest plan for the GMUG that will balance multiple uses of these public lands in a modern and sustainable way.”

The research was done by James Maples and Michael Bradley, associate professors at Eastern Kentucky University.

They say that paddlers, rock climbers, hikers, snowsport enthusiasts, and mountain bikers contribute to the estimated 2.6 million total visits a year to the GMUG. The report, which incorporates polling of both local and nonlocal forest users, also says that more than 92 percent of respondents living in western Colorado said access to outdoor recreation was a key reason they live here, and that 75 percent of those surveyed earn more than $50,000 a year.

The research’s focus is on spending by nonlocals who visit the three forests to recreate.

Snow sports, anchored by resort visitors, are the main driver of human-powered outdoor recreation on the GMUG, according to the research. It says Forest Service data shows snow sports including skiing, snowshoeing, fat biking, and winter hiking account for more than 1.3 million visits a year to the GMUG, and the researchers estimate that 60 percent of those visits involve people that come from outside the GMUG area and surrounding region.

They estimate that human-powered winter recreation on the forests by tourists generates $333 million in spending a year and supports some 3,500 jobs and $93 million in annual wages. The research says resort visitors account for an estimated $213 million of that spending, with backcountry visitors spending $120 million a year.

Recreation stats

Other key conclusions of the research:

■ Hikers, backpackers, trail runners, and peak climbers account for about 600,000 total visits a year, with about 60 percent of those visits involving people outside the area. An estimated $24 million in spending by tourists in this category supports some 235 jobs.

■ Mountain bikers visit the GMUG more than 150,000 times a year, with about 70 percent of those visits coming from outside the area. Bikers not from the area spend about $24 million locally and support 315 jobs in the area.

■ Rock climbers visit the GMUG more than 35,000 times a year, with about 70 percent of those visits involving people from outside the area. Those latter visitors spend about $6.2 million within the GMUG area and support an estimated 61 jobs. Rock climbers also spend another $5.2 million outside the area but in Colorado as a result of their visits to the GMUG, the research says.

■ Paddlers visit about 26,000 times each year, including commercial and noncommercial visits. Visitors from outside the area spend an estimated $4.7 million within the GMUG, supporting 22 jobs.

Dave Wiens, executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, said in the Outdoor Alliance news release, “The Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forest is home to some of the most spectacular mountain biking trails in the country. I live in Gunnison in part because of the access the forest provides to great rides, and these reports show how the region is benefiting from the Forest Service’s work to prioritize trails and mountain bike access. IMBA has enjoyed a strong relationship with the Forest Service, and we hope these reports aid their important work in planning for the next decades of outdoor recreation and mountain biking on the GMUG.”

The research’s findings reflect the presence of three ski resorts on the GMUG — Powderhorn, Telluride, and Crested Butte — and their draw to tourists who are included in the research’s human-powered recreation data although they are technically lift-served.

Said Maples, one of the researchers, “Skiing as a whole makes a massive contribution to Colorado’s economy.”

But he said one of the things the Outdoor Alliance wanted to see was a breakdown between resort and backcountry winter recreation.

“Backcountry is one of those things that I think sometimes gets overlooked when we think about skiing,” he said.

But he said backcountry skiing is “really a growing thing,” as research is showing. A hiker, Maples said he’s drawn to areas away from people.

“I think from the skiing perspective, backcountry skiing offers that as well,” he said.

But he said backcountry skiers still can make use of resort facilities to some degree, such as when it comes to where they may find lodging, benefiting some of the same businesses resort skiers do.

While the new research focuses on human-powered recreation, Maples said that’s not to discount other kinds of economic contributors when it comes to national forest use. He said he’d like to see research done on the contribution of snowmobiling, for example, and would be interested in looking into that himself if an organization wanted such a study undertaken.

Maples said the reason the research focused on tourists is that such economic impact research technically isn’t supposed to include spending by local residents, whose spending doesn’t bring new money into a local economy. But he said he feels local spending matters as well when it comes to outdoor recreation, and it also matters that a lot of people say they choose to live in the area because of the local forest access.

The Daily Sentinel

Photo by Chris Tomlinson/The Daily Sentinel

Graphic by Robert McLean/The Daily Sentinel

 

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