America’s widening nature gap: Almost half of the U.S. did not go outside to recreate in 2018. What does that mean for Ski Town, USA?
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — On the same day as the start of the Outdoor + Snow Show in Denver, which claims to be the largest U.S. trade show for the outdoor and winter sports industries, a study became public that worried many brands and industry experts.
The Outdoor Foundation’s Outdoor Participation Report, published Jan. 29, showed that nearly half of Americans did not go outside to recreate at all in 2018. Furthermore, people went on 1 billion fewer outings in 2018 compared to in 2008.
That downward spiral may come as a surprise to residents of Steamboat Springs, who have dealt this winter with overcrowded parking lots on Buffalo Pass and long lift lines at Steamboat Resort.
Not only is getting outside a way for people to stay healthy, outdoor recreation has become a multi-billion dollar industry, creating major incentives for local companies like Big Agnes and Smartwool to keep people active — and serious financial consequences if the downward trend continues.
The report identified barriers to people getting outside, chief among them work and family demands, costs of entry and an increase in technology usage. Lise Aangeenbrug, the Outdoor Foundation’s executive director, said solutions should focus on reforming Americans’ habits to be more outdoor-centric.
“I think the outdoors could spark joy in a way that can compete with the lure of the indoors. It’s getting people off the couch, off their screens and out the door to experience that joy, wonder, learning and skill building,” Aangeenbrug told The Colorado Sun. “We are really focused at the foundation on how we can make the outdoors a habit again. It really happens at the community level. People need to have positive, repeat experiences in the outdoors.”
But additional data in the report highlights longstanding discrepancies in who gets outside to recreate. A major, five-year decline in outdoor recreation among “non-Caucasian ethnic groups” underscores an inequality issue that has perpetuated the downward trend.
- American went on one billion fewer outdoor outings in 2018 than in 2008.
- Only 17.9% of the nation recreated outside at least once per week.
- All non-Caucasian ethnic groups said they went on fewer outings in 2018 compared to the previous five years.
- Americans likely will continue spending less time outdoors, the report predicts, particularly with intensifying external barriers like work and family demands, technology and cost of entry.
Source: Outdoor Foundation’s 2019 Outdoor Participation Report
Amid the national decline, the recreational opportunities around Steamboat may offer a way to revitalize joy in the outdoors — but that comes with its own consequences.
Importance of the outdoors
As many Steamboat residents know, getting outside to exercise contributes to a healthier life. Studies show time outdoors can reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. Doctors in Japan even prescribe forest bathing, which simply means taking time to be in nature, as a post-operation healing regimen or a treatment for people with mental illnesses.
For Lisa Bankard, the program manager for employee well-being at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, encouraging staff to get outside is an important component of her programming.
“It’s not just that feel-good aspect. We see a medical benefit to being outside,” Bankard said. “There is something chemically that happens in the brain that brings that sense of calm and reduces anxiety.”
Of course, exercising outside also brings physical benefits. While Colorado boasts the lowest obesity rate in the country, the number of people with an unhealthy weight continues to rise. According to the most recent Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data, 23% of people in Colorado were obese in 2019. That is an increase from 1995, when just 11% of the population was obese.
An outdoor town with a popularity problem
Steamboat residents may balk at the idea that fewer people are getting outside. Steamboat Pilot & Today has reported multiple stories in the previous months on what many see as a popularity problem, from tubing on the Yampa River in the summer to battling Ikon Pass crowds at Steamboat Resort in the winter.
The Outdoor Foundation’s findings certainly came as a surprise to Steamboat’s Parks, Open Space and Trails Manager, Craig Robinson. He constantly sees crowds of people on the various city trails and has overseen recent trail expansions.
“It seems like every year, we are seeing more people come to Steamboat,” he said, particularly people from the Front Range.
While it is hard to track such numbers in precise detail, Robinson referenced a city-funded trail use and economic impact study, released in 2019, which sought to enumerate trail users at Steamboat’s three most popular trail systems: Emerald Mountain, Spring Creek and Buffalo Pass.
The study estimates that between 31,300 and 43,500 people visited the city’s trails to hike, bike and run. They also contributed an estimated $17.3 million to $24.1 million each season to the local economy.
Surveys collected by the Steamboat Springs Chamber suggest more people are coming to Steamboat specifically to enjoy its outdoor recreation opportunities. In 2017, 52% of respondents said they visited the area to hike, according to Laura Soard, marketing director for the Chamber. By 2019, that percentage increased to 62%.
Other activities showed similar upward trends. The number of people who said they visited to Steamboat to bike doubled from 2017 to 2019, according to Soard.
“It shows us that people are doing more of that when they stay here,” she said.
Across the board, the vast majority of people report being satisfied with Steamboat’s trails, according to the city’s trail use survey. More than 92% of respondents rated the trail conditions as a 4 or 5 out of 5.
Ironically, one of the only concerns respondents voiced, particularly as the city tries to bill itself as an outdoor mecca, is the crowdedness of local trails.
“It’s a catch-22,” Robinson said. “People are saying we are too crowded, yet we are going through marketing efforts to bring more people to town.”
A similar quagmire is playing out at the ski area. One of the major pieces of evidence of America’s declining outdoorsmanship comes from skier numbers, which showed a significant drop between the 2004-05 and 2009-10 seasons, according to a report from Snowsports Industries America. Numbers continued to drop between the 2015-16 and 2017-18 seasons, before breaking the slump last winter with a record-breaking season.
During Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.’s 21st annual Airline Partners’ Summit in January, National Ski Areas Association President and CEO Kelly Pawlak described the industry tackling an issue of affordability and struggling to entice younger generations into the sport.
“Our youth aren’t skiing as many days as their parents,” Pawlak said.
Kids are not just avoiding ski areas, the Outdoor Foundation’s study showed. From 2012 to 2018, youth participation in outdoor recreation dropped 15%, an especially concerning trend, researchers said, because it indicates future declines.
Mike Martin, a professor at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs and director of its ski and snowboard business program, said technology is much to blame for kids’ indoor habits. The popularity of social media and video games has presented distractions to outdoor recreation that did not exist among older generations.
“It definitely has changed how people recreate and how often,” Martin said.
Robin Schepper, a Steamboat-based consultant, has spent much of her career encouraging people, particularly children, to get outside and play. She served as the executive director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign until 2011.
If children do not learn at an early age the importance of outdoor recreation, it creates a generational waterfall effect of people who do not get outside, she explained.
“If you don’t create habits — whether it’s healthy eating habits or going outside — before the age of 12, it is very hard to make those habits later in life,” Schepper said. “If kids are not doing that, I worry for the future.”
Empowering youth and minorities
Reversing the nation’s outdoor aversion is no simple task. Solutions must focus on the barriers that prevent people from recreating.
Getting outside can be expensive — a day pass at Steamboat Resort can cost more than $200 — and many families do not have the means to travel to outdoor trails. Roddie Beall, program support specialist with Integrated Community, works with local immigrant families, many of whom say their indoor lifestyles are not so much a choice as a necessity.
“Clients say they miss being outside, but they can’t do it here because they can’t afford it,” Beall said.
Others come from places where being outside is unsafe, so it takes time to form outdoor habits.
To address language and culture barriers, Integrated Community works with families to sign kids up for outdoor programs like BookTrails or the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
The city also has started several programs to make outdoor recreation more affordable. Every second-grader in the Steamboat Springs School District learns to ski or snowboard for free through the Ski Town USA Initiative, according to Communications Manager Mike lane.
Steamboat also has a local arm of the SOS Outreach Program, which teaches youth from low-income families to ski, snowboard, hike and camp. About 45 kids from Steamboat enrolled in the program as of January, according to Lane.
Multiresort pass options like the Ikon and Epic passes have helped to revitalize the sport while making it more affordable, local ski industry expert Chris Diamond argues in his recent book “Ski Inc. 2020.” But with higher participation comes larger crowds, much to the chagrin of Steamboat locals who had grown used to the city’s isolation from the Interstate 70 corridor.
One silver lining from the Outdoor Foundation’s report showed an increase in outdoor recreation among Hispanic communities, the strongest growth among ethnic populations in the past year.
While the study offers no solutions of its own for America’s nature deficit, it predicts future declines in outdoor trips. By reminding people of the value of the outdoors and making recreation opportunities accessible to people, regardless of income or ethnicity, the nation could reverse that trend. What that would do to Steamboat’s concerns of overcrowding, only time will tell.
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