Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Economy
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
The economic impact of outdoor recreation in Colorado is well documented. The latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis show robust strength in Colorado’s outdoor economy:
$11.6 Billion – Outdoor recreation contribution to Colorado’s economy
125,200 – Outdoor recreation jobs
$6.1 Billion – Outdoor recreation compensation
Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office Listening Tour
Beyond economic indicators, what makes outdoor recreation in Colorado special? The team at the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (OREC, part of the Office of Economic Development and International Trade) hit the road this year for a statewide listening tour. They wanted to hear from Colorado residents about outdoor recreation in their communities. What they found was:
Coloradans love where they live
Ninety-two percent of Coloradans participate in some form of outdoor recreation every year. Most of us love where we live because of the access to nature and outdoor recreation. That love of place is key. It drives our motivation to work on challenges, like balancing outdoor recreation with resource protection and providing more affordable housing for workers.
The outdoor recreation conversation is expanding
Public lands stewardship and responsible recreational activity are longtime priorities for Coloradans, yet the conversation about outdoor recreation in our state is expanding. Community leaders are talking more than ever about workforce shortages, affordable housing, and how climate change is affecting where they live, work, and recreate.
There are many opportunities for collaboration
Each Colorado community is unique— shaped by the landscape, traditions like ranching or mining, and the people who live there. The OREC team is learning how communities are managing land uses, planning for climate change, and providing housing for residents and workers. These and other priorities increasingly necessitate collaboration between towns and across valleys and counties.
Outdoor recreation communities are creative
The OREC team recently launched its first new grant opportunity, the Colorado State Outdoor Recreation Grant, to help communities with pandemic recovery efforts. The grants support outdoor recreation infrastructure, planning assistance, marketing and promotions, and workforce development in the outdoor industry. Colorado communities will use the grants for solutions that are as varied and unique as each community and speak to the creativity of the outdoor industry.
Outdoor Recreation Challenges
Just as the positive dimensions of outdoor industry are understood, so too are the challenges presented by rapid growth in outdoor recreation. The impacts of recreation are frequent topics of discussion and study. Challenges to outdoor recreation can vary by community, but some are common to almost all areas:
A constrained workforce
All industries in almost every region of the country report shortages in people applying for job openings. This is especially true in the outdoor industry where recreation activity is accelerating rapidly.
Lack of affordable housing
A major factor behind the constrained workforce is a lack of housing affordable to outdoor recreation employees. This challenge is especially pronounced in smaller, more rural communities where outdoor recreation is concentrated and where tourism and second home ownership are common.
Sustainable environmental conservation
In the early years of the pandemic, public lands and recreation program managers were stunned by the explosion of tourists and outdoor recreationists visiting outdoor areas. They’re still seeing overuse and even abuse of recreational areas by inexperienced or indifferent users.
Outdoor Recreation Opportunities
The challenges confronting outdoor recreation may be formidable, but a growing number of opportunities and initiatives across Colorado aim to address them. From grassroots community groups to hundred-million-dollar Federal funding programs, the resources targeting outdoor recreation challenges are multi-dimensional. Some examples of strategic opportunities include:
The Colorado OREC office and other state and local agencies, business owners and employees, and nonprofits such as the Outdoor Industry Association are among an expanding network advocating for the outdoor industry. Whether it’s lobbying for funding, conservation programs, housing and infrastructure, workforce or business development, and more, their collective voice is more influential today than ever.
Colorado’s higher education institutions are leading the nation with new professional development programs supporting careers in outdoor recreation. They are responding to industry workforce shortages by offering specialized degrees and certificates. Institutions leading the way include: University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado State University, Colorado Mesa University, Western Colorado University, Colorado Mountain College, Fort Lewis College, University of Denver, Adams State College, Metro State University, Red Rocks Community College, and Pikes Peak Community College.
The OREC team sees real opportunities to address outdoor recreation challenges through rising participation in collaborative community initiatives, regional partnerships, and statewide gatherings. Examples include Governor Polis’ Colorado Outdoor Regional Partnership initiative, the Central Mountain SBDC’s recent Outdoor Industry Summit, and the annual Colorado Outdoor Industry Leadership Summit (COILS). Private companies and nonprofits are essential partners in programs like these. REI, VF Corp., Vail Resorts, Patagonia, Great Outdoors Colorado, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, and many others leverage their financial resources, employee volunteers, and name recognition to help mitigate outdoor recreation challenges.
Entrepreneurs and their startups make a positive impact on Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy, especially in our rural communities most dependent on recreation. Well known startup success stories like Smartwool, OtterBox, and Osprey continue to inspire new generations of startups such as SheFly, Himali, and Sasquatch Expedition Campers. Colorado’s robust entrepreneurial ecosystem includes many organizations supporting outdoor entrepreneurs as well as outdoor communities. To name just a few: Startup Colorado, Moosejaw Accelerator, ICELab, SCAPE, Telluride Venture Network, and Central Mountain Ascent.
Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy is thriving. Strong advocates, dynamic collaborations, innovative educational programs, passionate entrepreneurs, and many other ecosystem constituents are taking outdoor recreation and community economic vitality to exciting new places. The outdoor economy – and the communities where people recreate – certainly face challenges in managing sustainable recreation. But Colorado leaders in local communities, business, and government are proving themselves capable of rising to the challenges.
Published originally in the report released for the 2023 Colorado Business Economic Outlook by the Business Research Division, Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado Boulder