Outdoor Recreation Plays Big Roleby Jeff Koenings
As anyone who has stood in a checkout line at a sporting goods store can attest, outdoor recreation is big business in Washington state.
Whether they're kayakers or clam diggers, hikers or fishers, outdoor enthusiasts generate billions of dollars in spending annually in the state as they enjoy the unique biological diversity of Washington's wildlife and other natural resources. In 2001, wildlife viewers, hunters and fishers alone spent more than $2.1 billion in Washington, according to a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey.
But despite this spending and the jobs, tax revenues and other economic benefits created by it outdoor recreation is seldom mentioned in the ongoing dialogue over our state's economy. Manufacturing, financial services, biotechnology and other sectors all attract their fair share of attention, but outdoor recreation is largely ignored.
We have a chance to change this today when the state Department of Trade and Economic Development (CTED) convenes a one-day tourism forum in Seattle. The forum, which precedes Gov. Gary Locke's Economic Development Conference, will be used to unveil the state's first strategic plan to guide wildlife viewing.
The plan is the outgrowth of Senate Bill 5011, passed earlier this year and sponsored by state Sens. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, Shirley Winsley, R-Fircrest, and Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle. The legislation directs the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and CTED to craft a plan promoting wildlife-viewing tourism and sustainable economic development in our rural areas, while maintaining the state's diverse wildlife resources.
The strategic plan, which will be delivered to lawmakers by year's end, is long overdue. Wildlife viewing is one of the most popular outdoor activities in Washington, owing largely to the fact that we are one of the most biologically diverse states in the country (at last count, Washington served as permanent or temporary home to nearly 1,000 mammal, bird and fish species).
At close to $1 billion a year, we now rank seventh nationally in spending by wildlife viewers, just behind much larger states such as Florida, Texas and California.
But wildlife viewing is just one type of outdoor recreation important to our economy. Hikers, fishers, skiers, hunters and many others all contribute in a big way to the state's bottom line. Our biodiversity and waterways, mountains and other natural features help Washington attract more dollars from wildlife viewers and fishers than many other states, including our Pacific Northwest neighbors of Oregon and Idaho.
All these expenditures add up to steady jobs, tax revenues for the state's general fund and profits for stores, restaurants, motels, service-station operators and others. In many rural areas, where traditional industries such as logging and mining have declined in importance in recent years, the ability to attract this spending can have an impact on an entire area's economic fortunes.
Indeed, no other area of our state better reflects this economic reality than our coastal areas, where good clamming or fishing seasons can affect the pocketbooks of a large percentage of the populace. Consider that in 2001, when salmon fishing along the coast was good, personal income in towns from Ilwaco to Neah Bay climbed by more than $9 million nearly triple the average of the previous five years when fishing was slower, according to the Pacific Fishery Management Council.
All of this points to the need to start thinking about and supporting outdoor recreation activities in much the same way we would other types of activities that contribute to our state's overall economy.
Of paramount importance, of course, is the need to protect our biodiversity and other natural resources using the best science and conservation principles available. This stewardship is not only necessary, but should serve as a trump card in discussions over what types of outdoor recreation we permit and promote.
But we also need to make sure we provide the financial and other support necessary to nurture those outdoor-recreation activities that are environmentally sound. Maintaining our lands to ensure trails and waterway access sites remain open and safe, modernizing hatcheries to provide fish for sustainable fisheries, constructing new wildlife viewing or nature interpretative centers, developing birding and salmon festivals these and other endeavors require a long-term commitment to be successful.
Additionally, we need to work to expand public and private partnerships with the goal of encouraging local investments tied to sustainable, predictable outdoor recreation opportunities. Savvy municipal leaders and entrepreneurs in many parts of our state are already recognizing the benefits of such partnerships to increase tourism in their communities and expand their economic base.
No one would argue that outdoor recreation is a panacea for our present economic challenges. Nor would anyone contend it can replace the middle-income jobs we have lost due to larger business and economic trends.
But outdoor recreation does deserve to play a part in a statewide economic strategy. The wildlife-viewing plan should serve as the first step in that direction.
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