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Report: Outdoor recreation is worth $7.8B to Wisconsin economy

The pandemic has driven increases in outdoor recreation. Officials want to make them permanent.

Don Erickson, of Superior, skis along the Superior Municipal Forest trail on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. A new state report shows that outdoor recreation contributes $7.8 billion to Wisconsin's economy. (File / Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The pandemic has driven Americans outdoors.

In Wisconsin, that's meant a spike in demand for bikes and hiking trails, fishing licenses and state park admissions. As the state enters the heart of the winter recreation season, state officials are hoping to build on the gains Wisconsin saw in the summer and fall, and make plans to keep the sector growing even after the pandemic is over.

Outdoor recreation contributes $7.8 billion to Wisconsin's gross domestic product, according to a first-of-its-kind report from the state Office of Outdoor Recreation released in the fall. That includes money spent on outdoor pursuits from golfing to snowmobiling, but also the economic contributions of Wisconsin manufacturers, including Trek Bicycles and St. Croix Rods whose products cater to outdoor activities. And much of Wisconsin's Northwoods tourism sector is built around outdoor recreation.

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It was a growing economy before the pandemic. According to the report, as Wisconsin's overall GDP grew by 7% from 2012 to 2017, GDP from outdoor recreation grew by 12%.

And the pandemic has helped fuel new growth in the industry this year. Health experts say that, with precautions such as physical distancing, outdoor activities are low-risk for COVID-19 transmission.

Trek couldn't keep up with demand for new bikes over the summer, and the company has scaled up production. Visits to state parks and purchases of fishing licenses both were up 14% this year compared to 2019, said Mary Monroe Brown, director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation, which is part of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

"I think we're going to see this trend continue into winter," Monroe Brown said. "Wisconsin has some great opportunities to continue to social distance while getting outdoors in the winter."

Since the start of the pandemic, Google has made public anonymous data on people's mobility based on cellphone location data. From mid-May until late October, it showed people's travel to parks increased by much more than to any other locations. That increase from the baseline fell in October, and it remains to be seen whether Wisconsinites will incorporate more COVID-safe outdoor activities through the winter months.

There are some challenges.

Skiing or snowmobiling are naturally low-risk activities — but getting a drink in the ski chalet or stopping for lunch at a tavern on the snowmobile trail may not be. Monroe Brown said the Office of Outdoor Recreation put together a toolkit with advice on safe outdoor recreation for summer and fall activities, and will distribute a similar resource geared toward winter activities.

A May survey by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, a national trade group, found 80% of Americans said they'd participated in outdoor activities during the pandemic, and one-third said they were trying them for the first time .


Monroe Brown said she hopes some of those people will stick with the outdoors.

"The lifestyle is one that Wisconsinites embrace, and I think they're going to continue to embrace it looking into the future," she said.

Wisconsin Public Radio can be heard in the Twin Ports at 91.3 FM or online at wpr.org/news.

Wisconsin Public Radio, © Copyright 2020, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.

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