Just how big are we, anyway? Exploring the magnitude of the "Outdoor Recreation Nation"

I’ve spent more time than I care to lately being immersed in policy and legislative stuff. There have been a few bills proposed at the state that warranted significant attention, both in support of and against. And locally, I’m still trying to figure out how to navigate a big budget cut and still provide the parks and services I know people want.

In these instances, we parks and conservation folks always feel like the little guys. The small, quiet, ignorable voices begging for scraps from the big policy tables. But if we look beyond the few of us that are lucky enough to work in this industry, we find that we outdoorsy types are quite numerous.

So I set out to quantify who we are and what impact we could potentially have, assuming of course we were to come out of the turkey woods or park the boat long enough to flex our collective muscle. 

Finding data on our collective outdoor pursuits was not as easy as I thought. But that’s the fun sometimes. It took some calls and emails and a fair bit of googling and searching my own research archives, but I think I got a pretty good snapshot of outdoor recreationists here in our county and across the state.

Boats and campers were at the front of my mind since I had just pulled mine out of storage, so I started there. In Des Moines County, there are just shy of 3,300 registered boats, according to our Recorder's office. According to the census, there are 30,350 people over the age of 18 in Des Moines County. That means that there is a registered boat for about every ten adults in the county.

In other words, if you don’t have a boat, but you have at least ten friends, statistically speaking, one of them will have one.

Speaking of which, I thought about where all those boats go. My department manages four public boat ramps on the Mississippi River. The city manages the two ramps in downtown Burlington, north and south of the auditorium. To my knowledge, those are the only six public boat ramps that provide access to the river. That’s one boat ramp for every 550 registered boats.

But not everyone boats the river, despite how it may appear on Saturday afternoons in late July. There is only one public boating lake in Des Moines County, Big Hollow (Lake Geode is in Henry County). Big Hollow sees a lot of boat traffic but certainly not commensurate with 3,300 registered units, not to mention the thousands of unregistered canoes and kayaks. Which means a lot of people leave the county for boating opportunities.

But on the flip side, Big Hollow also brings boaters to the county. It’s not uncommon to have 60-plus trucks and trailers at the boat ramp on a Saturday morning during the crappie bite. And generally, about half of those trucks will have out-of-county plates. I don’t know how to quantify that economic impact, but I’m certain it’s sizeable.

Now that I’ve mentioned the crappie biting, what about anglers? Just shy of 2,600 Des Moines County residents bought a fishing license in 2021. That’s down from a pandemic-high of about 3,100 the year before. So you would need just over ten friends to statistically have someone in the group that could take you fishing.
Now on to campers. According to data from the DOT, there are 1,311 travel trailers and motor homes registered in Des Moines County. My department manages the only three public campgrounds in the county, which offer a total of 66 RV campsites (ones with electric hookups). That’s one site for about every 20 registered campers. But campers, by their nature, are travelers. At the Big Hollow campground, we see visitors from about 40 states and half of Iowa’s counties annually. We’ve even had campers from Canada, Australia, and Germany in the past.

Spring also brings turkey hunting season, which I’m very much looking forward to. I hunt turkeys almost exclusively on public land, so I got to thinking about those statistics.

There were 1,607 hunting license holders in Des Moines County last year. Scaled to the 2,000-or-so acres of available public hunting land in Des Moines County, that’s a touch less than 1.5 acres of available public land per hunter, assuming of course they don’t hunt with their kids (youth under age 16 don’t need a license to hunt so they are not represented in license sales data).

Statewide, less than 3 percent of Iowa is public land. Research shows that about half of the population actively participates in outdoor recreation. Doing the math, that’s only about a half-acre of public land per active recreationist in Iowa. That's a square of land about 147 feet on a side.

At least you won't need binoculars to see to the other side.

Now let’s talk economic impact. Annually, 47 million Americans head outdoors to hunt and fish. Combined, these two sports alone generate over $200 billion in US economic impact. That’s more than the gross domestic product of Greece, about the same as Peru, and just less than that of New Zealand. It’s about $50 billion more than the GDP of Ukraine (source).

Camping contributes $788 billion to the US economy, about 2.1 percent of our national GDP (source). Recreational boating contributes over $170 billion (source). In Iowa alone, outdoor recreation generates over $3 billion in direct spending, supports over 31,000 jobs and over $717 million in income, according to research by Iowa State University.

Suffice to say that if we outdoorsy types were our own nation, we wouldn’t be a small one. Our impact is, or can be, sizeable both economically and politically.

Let’s not forget that. 

There are times when it's necessary to flex our collective muscle. I think this is one of those times. There have been attempts at the state to make it harder for agencies like the DNR and county conservation to acquire recreation lands. The state still hasn't funded the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Funding for parks and conservation is too often viewed as "luxury spending" at all levels of government. It's time the people of Outdoor Nation speak up. The things we love - the lands and waters upon which we hunt, fish, boat, camp, hike, bike... - will only become political priorities if we demand it. Collectively, we spend billions on these things. It's time we put our mouths where our money goes. Here are some simple ways to do that:
  1. Call, write, or meet with your elected officials - your County Board of Supervisors, your city council, your state and national legislators - and tell them that parks and conservation are important to you, and why.
  2. Attend local forums, town halls, debates, whatever...ask questions about how the candidate(s) will support those things. Tell them how and why you support parks, outdoor recreation, and conservation. Make those topics an issue.
  3. Support your local conservation organizations. Whether its by volunteering, donating, or leaving big things to them in your will. Whatever works. They're the front line workers fighting every day to protect and expand the places and services we value so much.