In western Colorado, where much of the prosperity has come from below the surface in the forms of mining and oil and gas, businesswoman Sarah Shrader sees the land as an increasingly vital part of the area’s economic strength.
Outdoor recreation on the region’s vast public lands has been key to diversifying rural communities’ economies, said Shrader, owner and co-founder of Bonsai Design in Grand Junction. The business designs and develops aerial adventure parks in Colorado and across the country.
“We’ve had a history in this community, like other communities in the West and the South, of dependence on extraction,” Shrader said. “As we transition away from that dependency, what has brought people to communities like ours are the incredible natural assets that we have.”
Mesa County, where Grand Junction is located, is roughly 75% public lands where people hunt, fish, ski, climb, go four-wheeling and raft the rivers, Shrader said. Outdoor recreation has created jobs, driven tourism and drawn people and companies beguiled by the lifestyle, she added.
Shrader said a bill recently introduced in Congress that would invest $50 million a year to develop outdoor recreation in rural communities would provide essential support for areas like the Western Slope.
The Rural Outdoor Investment Act was introduced in late July by Democrats Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico. The bill would invest in outdoor recreation infrastructure, planning and business development
The legislation would also encourage collaboration between the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, and the Small Business Administration to let communities and businesses know about federal resources.
“In Colorado, outdoor recreation is an economic engine for communities and a cornerstone of our Western way of life,” Bennet said in a release. “The legislation will expand recreation options, create good-paying jobs and support local businesses so that as demand for outdoor recreation in Colorado grows, rural economies grow too.”
Outdoor recreation is an important economic engine nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. In 2021, the industry accounted for 1.9%, or $454 billion of current-dollar gross domestic product. Outdoor recreation’s economic output is $862 billion annually, according to the bureau’s data.
In Colorado, the BEA reported that outdoor recreation generates $11.6 billion annually and represents 2.7% of the state’s GDP. The industry supports 125,000 jobs in Colorado, about 4.3% of all employees in the state.
“I think this is a really, really important piece of legislation, not just for Colorado but for the entire country,” said Conor Hall, director of the state Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. “It’s an increased commitment by the federal government to recognize the huge importance that recreation plays as an economic driver around the country and to invest toward continuing to grow it and support and grow the many millions of jobs associated with it.”
A big focus of his office, Hall said, is supporting communities that want to develop or expand their outdoor recreation industries. His office has approved a number of grants with federal stimulus money that has helped local efforts.
“But that was one-time federal funding that has gone away or is in the process of going away. We don’t have a lot of other resources through my office to continue that work,” Hall said.
The Rural Outdoor Investment Act would allow his office to provide the expertise and technical assistance to communities, Hall added.
The legislation will help bring rural communities a big return on investments in outdoor recreation investments in the form of social, economic, and environmental benefits for locals and visitors, said Jessica Wahl Turner, president of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, which represents thousands of outdoor businesses nationwide.
The bill proposes spending $30 million per year through the Economic Development Administration on infrastructure such as trails, boat ramps and signs; $5 million through the EDA for planning grants to help with marketing, business development and tourism management; $2.5 million on university partnerships for research, education and technical assistance; and $12.5 million for the Recreation Economy for Rural Communities grants for Main Street revitalization through outdoor recreation.
Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement that the proposal would provide new resources for Colorado communities to grow their economies and ensure that outdoor recreation continues to succeed.
Shrader of Bonsai Design in Grand Junction is president of the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of the Grand Valley. Shrader said more resources are needed to continue the work started years ago by people with the foresight to conserve open spaces and do things like build riverfront trails in Grand Junction.
“We’ve been here 19 years. I did fall in love with this community. My business could be anywhere,” Shrader said.
But the area’s natural assets and the work to increase access to the outdoors have kept her and her business in Grand Junction.
“I think increasing access to outdoor spaces is not only essential for our growing economy, it’s essential for human health and wellness and a connected community,” Shrader said. “The outdoor ethic is such an important part of our heritage.”
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