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Local view: A nearly trillion-dollar economic engine, outdoor rec deserves stronger voice

Pat Bagley / Cagle Cartoons

Back in December, the president signed into law the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act of 2016, or the REC Act. He did this after unanimous support for the bill in both houses of Congress.

I know what you're thinking: Snore. Stick with me for a few minutes, though. I think this is a big deal.

The REC Act means that, for the first time, the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis will treat the outdoor industry as a separate entity. The bureau will determine what portion of the country's Gross Domestic Product comes from outdoor recreation. In other words, the sales of fishing rods, backpacks, and skis already are counted. But now they'll be accounted for under an outdoor industry satellite account. According to Outside Magazine, the first Bureau of Economic Analysis report will come out in 2020.

I can still hear you yawning. Maybe this will get your attention. The Outdoor Industry Association just released its annual report, and it said Americans spend $887 billion on outdoor recreation and the industry creates 7.6 million jobs. That's more spending than we put into gasoline and pharmaceuticals combined. That's more jobs than construction (6.4 million). We spend more on water sports gear ($14 billion) than we do on movie tickets ($11 billion). More American jobs come from snow sports (695,000) than from the extractive industries (627,000).

"There it is," you're thinking. "He's got a beef with mining and logging."

I don't. I believe agriculture, logging, and mining can be done responsibly. Commitment to responsible and sustainable practices costs money, however. So the question is: how much are corporations and the public willing to spend to safeguard our lands?

But I digress.

The topics I'm most concerned about are the current actions to remove lands from federal oversight. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced a bill to transfer 3 million acres of federal land to the state of Utah. He withdrew the bill after public outcry. He introduced another bill to eliminate federal law enforcement on Bureau of Land Management lands and in national forests. That bill is still alive.

President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing the review of 27 national monuments created since 1996. The typical argument is, "Who knows better than the locals what to do with federal lands?" We need to "return it to the people." The irony is that most of the states west of the Mississippi were granted the land to become states by the U.S. government. If the land is returned to anybody, it would be returned to the nation and not the state. If you really want to open a can, we can talk about who lived there before the U.S. government.

But, again, I digress.

The point is that public lands belong to everybody. I believe our public lands are a national resource. I mean this in the fullest sense of the word. I mean minerals and natural gas and timber as much as I do places to recreate.

Ours was the first country in the world to create a national park. We should be proud of the American relationship with public land.

The REC Act specifies the economic impact of outdoor recreation. This will help policymakers when they discuss the use of public land.

When somebody talks about creating jobs for a coal mine, because of the REC Act, the outdoor industry will have a common language: money and jobs.

Reasonable people can disagree about how our public lands should be used. That's healthy. For the first time, the REC Act will allow the outdoor industry to speak with a common frame of reference.

It will be years before GDP numbers are broken down to the local level in Duluth. Maybe we should analyze our local outdoor recreation economy now. Then we can compare our numbers to the ones from the REC Act.

Last year, using one measurement reported in the News Tribune, tourism tax revenue in Duluth reached a record high of $11.34 million. That was 6.6 percent more than the previous year's record.

We could also talk about how investments in outdoor recreation help reduce crime, improve educational outcomes, and lower health care costs by lowering stress and obesity rates.

But, for now, I'm just glad outdoor recreation will get to prove it's almost a trillion-dollar economic engine.

 Eric Chandler

Eric Chandler of Duluth is an airline pilot who has skied the American Birkebeiner 13 times and has run Grandma's Marathon 11 times. He's also a member of the Lake Superior Writers and the Outdoor Writers Association of America and is an associate member of the Military Writers Guild. Contact him at ericchandler.wordpress.com.

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