Recreation is redefining the value of Western public lands

Visits to public lands and consumer spending grow, as agency budgets atrophy.


Once, the West’s public lands were valued primarily for the timber, minerals and fossil fuels they held, which were extracted and then sold around the world. In the 1970s, more than two dozen Western counties relied on timber for at least a fifth of their revenue, while energy companies expanded onto public lands for coal and natural gas. Small communities swelled with loggers and miners and the businesses that supported them, providing an economy that helped preserve the West’s rural feel. Today, though, natural resource economies are waning, and many of those towns are struggling. Public lands are increasingly used for fun and leisure, and the West has joined the Northeast as the two most urbanized regions in the country, according to U.S. Census data analyzed by Headwaters Economics.

The West’s vast public lands remain its defining factor, but these days, their economic value increasingly comes from the outdoor industry. Nationally, that industry is worth nearly $900 billion annually, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. People made over 290 million visits to the West’s public lands last year and spent a lot of time — and money — along the way. Those numbers are growing, while the jobs and revenue associated with hydrocarbons and timber have declined over the past several decades. The West’s nearly 600 million acres of public lands have tremendous influence on what it means to be a Westerner, and that picture is changing. Here, a by-the-numbers look at the economic heft of recreation and public lands:

Source: Outdoor Industry Association
Sources: Outdoor Industry Association, Center for Western Priorities

Sources: Association of zoos and aquariums, NBC, National Basketball League,,

More than 290 million people visited Western public lands in 2017. Despite increasing visits to public lands and the billions of dollars in consumer spending on outdoor recreation that often takes place there, the percent of the federal budget allocated to manage these places has shrunk.

Sources: Center for Western Priorities, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management
Sources: Center for Western Priorities, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management
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