The Great Outdoor Recreation Debate

Over the past couple of decades, we have concluded that demand for outdoor recreation will remain high and more stable that facility oriented and team-based pursuits.  This assumption was shaken a couple of years ago by two publications:
  • Richard Louv in his book, 'Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder', raises concerns that our children have little or no experience of what it's like to explore the great outdoors.  Today's child is being deprived of the knowledge and the spiritual and emotional grounding that nature offers.
  • Oliver Pergmas and Patricis Zaradic, in their article 'Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation', looked at 16 time series variables before concluding that we are witness to a general downtrend in per capita participation in nature recreation.
Possible reasons for the identified decline in participation rates include:
  • growth in ethnic populations that often have a different view of nature and the wilderness
  • increasing cost of travel as fuel costs increase - as well as increases in time required related to urban development and traffic congestion
  • the shift over the years to more expensive forms of outdoor accommodation (e.g. RV camping) and the negative impact of the economic downturn in this regard
  • increasing competition from various forms of electronic entertainment that keep us indoors
  • crowding and congestion at destination points, and
  • increasing awareness of the environmental impacts that accompany overuse.
A rebuttal of sorts has come in the form of a 2009 presentation by Ken Cordell, Carter Betz, Gary Green and Shela Mou - a team that has kept the outdoor industry informed about trends for years ( ).  The team concludes that:
  • between 2000 and early 2008, the total number of Americans who participated in one or more outdoor activities increased by 4.4%
  • at the same time, the total number of days of participation increased from 67 billion to 84 billion
  • between 2000 and 2007, the total number of people participating in nature-based activities grew by 3.1%, while the number of participation days grew by about 32% - over all 50 nature-based activities studied, per capita days increased by more than 22%.

This latest analysis indicates that, when you look at total annual recreation activity days:
  • hunting and fishing is holding steady
  • backcounry activity trends are mixed but steady (with recent increases in backpacking and mountain climbing)
  • non-motor boating activity trends are mixed but experiencing a slight decline (kayaking grew in the first part of the decade and has held its place as the most popular activity in this category)
  • both snow skiing and snowboarding are experiencing significant decline
  • motorized activity trends are mixed: off-highway vehicle driving is up; snowmobiling is down; motorboating, personal watercraft, and waterskiing all steady
  • viewing/photographing nature grew rapidly mid decade and is relatively stable at that new level or plateau.
The bottom line appears to be that while per capita participation rates are generally down in the outdoor recreation field, visitor numbers are actually up due to a combination of more frequent visits and population growth over the same time period.

As if to confirm the above summary, Leisure Trends Group reported that outdoor product sales were down 2.2% in 2009.  Based on point-of-sale data, chain retail sales dropped 3%, specialty shop sales dropped 4.1%, while internet sales increased 4.5%.

However, the 2009 Topline Report of the Outdoor Industry Foundation used an online survey process and concluded that per capita participation rates were actually higher in 2008 than in 2007 for all outdoor activities included in the survey except kayaking and skiing.  The debate is not yet conclusive.

Meanwhile, those interested in ensuring continued public interest in the outdoors are being encouraged to take action:
  • Louv speaks to may ways of becoming active in a "No child Left Inside" movement
  • USA Today reports on a burgeoning, nationwide "back-to-nature movement to reconnect children with the outdoors", and
  • there's a new American Girl Doll, Lanie designed by American Girl in partnership with the Natinal Wildlife Federation (NWF) in support of the organization's "Be Out There" campaign.  She is intended to help girls play with growing a garden, bird-watch, camp, create a butterfly habitat, etc.

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