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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Advocates, professionals argue Spokane (mostly) bucks nationwide decline in outdoor recreation

The view from the top of Mount Spokane as seen on Jan. 20, 2020. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
The view from the top of Mount Spokane as seen on Jan. 20, 2020. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

A dire report finding that roughly half of Americans didn’t recreate outside last year has made waves (and headlines) since its publication in January.

And while the expansive survey put out by the Outdoor Industry Association provides plenty of useful takeaways, local outdoor advocates and industry professionals say the picture may be different in the Spokane area.

“I also think Spokane is a bit immune to these statistics because we are an emerging outdoor town and people are moving here specifically for our outdoor recreation,” said Carol Christensen. “But that might be my personal bias showing through.”

Christensen, who is the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy’s new communication and philanthropy manager, spent the past dozen years working in the outdoor retail industry, most recently at REI in Spokane. She said in that time REI has seen “good growth” although the way people recreate has changed.

“People don’t seem to be doing as many ‘epic’ outdoor things like climbing big mountains or trekking into the backcountry for weeks on end, but we’ve also seen more people interested in just being outside—going to the local park, taking a run over their lunch hour, singing up for yoga or spin classes (not outdoors, but still active),” she said in an email.

Others deeply embedded in Spokane’s outdoor scene echoed that observation.

Derrick Knowles, the publisher of Out There Outdoors said after reading about the report, he too wondered if it looked different in the Spokane region.

“Out There Outdoors has grown considerably since we bought the magazine seven years ago, as has attendance in our two events, the Spokane Great Outdoors & Bike Expo coming up Feb. 22-23 and Spokatopia Outdoor Adventure Festival in July,” he said in an email. “On a personal level, I’ve seen trailheads and trails around the region steadily growing more crowded and ski hills and backcountry ski spots getting more traffic.”

Visitor data from Washington State Parks bears those anecdotal observations out. According to a parks spokesperson the number of park visits continues to increase with no drop in attendance. For instance, in 2018 Riverside State Park logged more than 1 million visits compared to 780,000 in 2014.

Meanwhile, Dig Chrismer, the spokeswoman for Schweitzer Mountain, said more people are buying beginner ski packages, which she believes means “more people are making the effort to get out there.”

Still, there are some troubling signs locally. The national report noted that kids were spending far less time outside than ever before.

“Kids went on 15 percent fewer annual outings in 2018 than they did in 2012,” according to the report. “The decline in youth activity was particularly concerning as youth participation is a strong indicator of future activity. In fact, adults that were active outside as children were twice as likely to be active when they became adults.”

Jami Ostby Marsh has run the West Valley Outdoor Learning Center for nearly 20 years. There, she teaches kids about nature – whether it’s animal behavior, hydrology or recreation. In that time, she’s seen students become less familiar with and prepared for outdoor adventures.

“I have noticed in the last 19 years that kids aren’t ready to be outside or they haven’t had that experience,” she said in an interview Friday.

She added, “I feel like that’s a modeling thing. If parents aren’t exploring outside during all seasons it shows up.”

Like many educators, she recounts seeing kids get off the bus, in the dead of winter, wearing only a sweatshirt. That familiarity and connection with the natural world varies from community to community, she said, with children from rural areas generally being more connected and prepared for nature than children from urban settings.

The why of the decline is complicated and multivariate. But in Marsh’s experience, it has to do with the increasing cost of entry into many outdoor sports, the overall bustle of modern life and increased fear.

“I think people are afraid,” she said. “Everyone is afraid of cougars. (But) we’ve always had cougars.”

But now with social media “everyone knows about it in two seconds.”

The national report backs up some of those assertions. In addition to fewer participants, the report also found that those who still do recreate outside were doing so less and less.

“Over the past three years, overall outings have dropped by 4.5%,” it states. “This historical downward trend indicates that Americans will likely continue spending less time outdoors, especially with intensifying external barriers, such as work and family demands as well as technology and cost of entry.”

Additionally, those that do recreate outside tend to be wealthier and college educated, a demographic that doesn’t exactly describe the majority of Americans. For instance, 48.2% had a household income of at least $75,000 and more than 60% had some college education, according to the survey.

Those declines, in both youth participation and overall participation, worry outdoor enthusiasts. Knowles notes that “nature is some of the best and cheapest medicine for dealing with the stress, anxiety, and depression that so many Americans face these days.”

While Marsh certainly agrees with that, she’s also thinking about the future, and what decreased time outdoors means for the next generation.

“If kids understand where their water comes from and their clean air comes from, they will want to protect it,” she said.

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