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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Survey: Outdoor recreation generated $400 billion last year in the U.S.

A spey caster fishes for steelhead in the Clearwater River near Orofino, Idaho. Outdoor recreation has become a big business in the United States.  (Caitlin Beesley/Lewiston Tribune)
By Eric Barker Lewiston Tribune

Wildlife is big business, according to a twice-a-decade survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners.

Earlier this month, the federal agency released the 2022 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Associated Recreation. The document shows Americans spent nearly $400 billion last year in their efforts to hunt, fish or watch wildlife.

That breaks down to more than 1 billion hunting, fishing and bird-watching days by more than 14 million hunters, nearly 40 million anglers and 148 million wildlife watchers. It also includes activities like maintaining bird feeders, recreational boating and target shooting.

“Time spent outdoors immersed in nature lends great solace to the human psyche,” wrote Martha Williams, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, in a forward to an 87-page report on the survey. “The skirr of a covey of quail taking to the wing in front of a bird dog; the zing of a reel as a large catfish peels off line on a run to deep water; or the challenge of identifying the whispery song of a hidden woodland warbler. I have enjoyed all these sorts of experiences from Maryland to Montana, hunting, fishing, watching wildlife. They feed my soul.”

That soul-nourishing quality is mostly looked at as an intrinsic value by many Americans, according to Brian Brooks, of the Idaho Wildlife Federation. Because of that, its contribution not only to people’s quality of life but also to the economy is often overlooked. He said the study is important because it illustrates to political leaders how much people value wildlife and the habitats they depend on.

“In politics, money is what talks. There is absolutely an intrinsic value to wildlife and the ability to go hunting with your kids, family and grandparents – you can’t place a value on that. But it doesn’t get you too far when trying to influence politics. What this kind of study does is put actions into dollar amounts and every five years it comes out (and) it just kind of shocks you how much people enjoy wildlife-related activity.”

Anglers spent nearly $100 billion last year, hunters $45.2 billion and wildlife watchers $250.2 billion.

The last survey was conducted in 2016. The latest version, delayed one year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, reflects the surge of interest in outdoor recreation during and following the illness. Numbers are up across all categories. But the authors caution against comparisons to previous iterations of the study because of changes to the survey methodology. In short, they made the survey more user-friendly by allowing participants to respond in part via the web or telephone interviews; they added categories like recreational boating and target shooting; and expanded it to include the participation of children.

As in previous surveys, the vast majority of people who partake in wildlife-related recreation – a whopping 148 million – did so by viewing birds and animals. Nearly all of those folks, 146 million of them, did at least some of their wildlife viewing from or within a mile of their homes while just less than half of them, about 73.3 million, took trips away from home to do so. Combined they spent more than $250 billion, including $42.1 billion trip-related expenses, $118.6 billion on equipment and $89.5 billion on things like magazine subscriptions, membership dues in wildlife or conservation organizations, buying and leasing land, and planting wildlife-friendly vegetation.

Anglers and hunters spent a combined $144.6 billion, including $60.3 billion on equipment, much of which was subject to excise taxes supporting wildlife management and conservation. They spent $48.9 billion on trips and related expenses and $35.4 billion on magazines, membership dues and contributions, land leasing and licenses, tags and permits such as federal waterfowl stamps.

“It’s always valuable to have, whether from that study or another, the ability to quantify the economic contributions of the things we like for noneconomic reasons,” said Aaron Lieberman, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association.

He noted the survey only scratches the surface and doesn’t reflect how important hunting, fishing and wildlife watching are to some communities. For example, he said the tourism economy is critical to many rural towns like Riggins, where a good spring chinook run can keep cash registers ringing and people employed. Likewise, the dwindling of the elk herd in the upper Clearwater Basin has had a negative economic impact.

Lieberman said the survey fails to show how wildlife-related income can ripple through tiny mountain and river towns and even bigger places like Lewiston. He points to an Outdoor Industry Association report showing outdoor recreation in Idaho contributes $7.8 billion in consumer spending and $2.3 billion in wages and salaries, directly supporting 78,000 jobs. According to the Idaho Department of Labor, salmon and steelhead fishing brings in about $8.6 million to north central Idaho each month and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game estimates that salmon and steelhead anglers spend an average of about $350 per trip. Lieberman said economic studies that dive deeper would be valuable.

“We need them to be better than they are, they are not breaking things out in ways that reflect market contributions,” he said.