On June 19th the Outdoor Industry Foundation (OIF) released their Outdoor Recreation Participation Study (defunct link removed 2015). The numbers are fascinating, sometimes disturbing — and occasionally ludicrous.
As our first order of business consider the common view of those seeking to close off more backcountry to everyone but muscle powered folks. Lately they’ve been chanting a mantra about how the outdoor recreation industry requires legal Wilderness, and more is always better. Never mind that legal Wilderness shuts out bicycles, and more, according to the OIF study, the vast majority of outdoor recreation does NOT require legal Wilderness.
For example, as is conveniently left out of the OIF Executive Summary, the amount of motorized off-road recreation has exploded: Total off-road outings increased from 600 million in 2003 to 1.2 billion in 2005! And look at the other numbers for outdoor sports that require nothing more than accessible public land that’s not a strip mine: Bicycling, hunting, fishing, and on. As always, this leads me to the conclusion that we need a new land designation. Some sort of “backcountry” that allows roads and bicycles as well as careful resource extraction, but still protects from excessive development such as strip mining.
An aside about motorized recreation: Much of the increase in motorized use, in my opinion, is due to environmentalists shooting themselves in the feet by working like fiends for the past thirty years to restrict backcountry road use (road closures, no new roads, etc.) Ironically, rather than decreasing the amount of backcountry motorized recreation, limited inventory of roads has caused an explosion in the use of ATV type vehicles (“quads”) that can ride what are defined as “trails” less than 50 inches wide, and in reality can be driven nearly anywhere (legally or not) provided the timber is open and the terrain not too steep. When 4×4 autos got restricted, the public embraced quads and they became the modern equivalent of the horse.
Can you say “law of unintended consequences”?
While obsessing on their view of roads as the definition of evil, what the enviros didn’t see was the fact that 4-wheel-drive automobiles on roads are way less destructive then swarms of ATVs that can and do ride nearly anywhere. And automobiles are easier to keep on the roads through regulation and physical barriers. What’s weird is that recent raving about defining “roadless” areas here in Colorado continues this trend. Turns out many of the so called “roadless” areas will still allow ATV trails — just no “roads” with those awful Jeeps. Oh well, back to the drawing board on that one.
Let’s move on to other interesting tidbits in the OIF study. While I love backpacking, I’ve always felt it was a self limiting sport. Stumbling through the wilderness with a load on your back (no matter how light) is simply not for everybody. Despite that obvious fact, throughout the last decades quite a bit of land use philosophy has been based on the fear that legal Wilderness would be overrun by backpackers. Sure enough, the OIF study relates the continued trend of backpacking falling in popularity by a dramatic 22.5% over the past eight year period. As compensation, other activities that use more accessible backcountry are on the rise (such as trail running). What’s this mean for land management? Reality is that accessible backcountry land is being overrun by day-trip recreators. Interesting that much of the environmental movement out here in the west still concentrates on “protecting” remote areas that actually appear to need little if any protection, while the close-in places are getting hammered.
Lastly, everyone expects me to comment on the telemark skiing part of the study, so here goes. Those of us involved in the business side of the outdoor industry know that while backcountry skiing isn’t huge, it’s a significant part of the whole deal. Amazingly, the OIF study has nothing about backcountry skiing or alpine ski touring. Instead, we get a study of telemark skiing, the bulk of which is presumably done at ski resorts, since the study question is simply “Have you gone telemark skiing – downhill with telemark bindings that allow a free-heeled skiing experience?” That focus is fine if you’re simply interested in how many people make a telemark turn or use telemark gear, but since much of telemark skiing is a backcountry sport, one has to ask why the OIF study would give us a ton of info about who went “downhill skiing with telemark bindings,” but tells us zilch about who went backcountry skiing!
As for the telemark numbers, OIF makes some interesting statements. “…Telemark skiing has hovered between 1% and 2% of the total American population 16 years of age or older…for the past two years the total number of Telemark outings has returned to the near all time low number of outings seen in 1998.”
In other words, telemark skiing is a somewhat popular sport, but it’s perhaps reached its peak. (Sports like hunting, at 12% of the +16 population, would be defined as “popular”). One wonders if the fad part of telemark skiing is done, and we’ll now see a leveling of the sport’s popularity as it returns to being viewed as simply one of several ways to enjoy backcountry snow and perhaps make lift skiing more sexy.
Other telemark numbers are also interesting. A whooping 84% of skiers defined as “telemarkers” only telemarked from one to six times over the 2005 season, and the number of those who telemarked eleven or more times is only 10% — which is the population I’d define as the “enthusiasts” who support the industry. And check out the telemark demographic trends: It’s a young person’s sport, with most participants being under 35 years age. And it is somewhat ethnically diverse, OIF says 9% black and 4% Hispanic. But where all those minority telemarkers are skiing is a mystery to me, as I’ve seen and met a few during my travels, but nowhere near those numbers.
More ethnic diversity in our sports is a good thing because it makes them more viable in view of our nation’s changing demographics, not to mention reducing the uncomfortableness of seeing your favorite activities as a bastion of apartheid. But is stating that telemarking skiing has 14% minority participation wishful thinking, and perhaps the result of the Boulder Factor creeping into study (OIF is located in Boulder, Colorado)? One has to wonder. While Boulder, Colorado is indeed a bastion of enlightened (wishful) thinking, the place is not exactly minority central but instead is a fortress of white wealth.
Indeed, a bunch of interesting numbers that at least get us thinking. Claro?
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.