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Report finds recreation options help counties grow their populations and economy

February 5, 2019

A new report suggests that natural beauty and outdoor options could be keys to attracting new residents to rural regions of Idaho.

Montana-based nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics released a report last week looking at the relationship between recreation and growth in counties across the United States. Looking at the 333 counties that were defined as recreation-dependent by the United States Department of Agriculture, the study compared the number of people moving into the counties between 2010 and 2016 and the economic impact that movement has caused.

The clearest conclusion of the report is that those recreation-dependent areas are growing. Counties that rely on recreation have seen the number of incoming residents increase across the board, regardless of size. Megan Lawson, Ph.D., wrote the economic report and said the difference is especially stark for rural counties.

“On average, the only rural places that are growing are the ones that have these recreation economies” Lawson said.

Five counties in eastern Idaho were listed as recreation-based economies — Bear Lake, Custer, Fremont, Lemhi and Teton. Teton County had more people moving in than any other county in the area, with 6.7 new residents moving in for every 1,000 locals. The only two counties in eastern Idaho where job earnings had risen more than 10 percent since 2010 were Fremont and Lemhi.

The difference that recreation makes is even clearer for the rural counties. Bear Lake, Custer and Lemhi counties have seen their average earnings increase by half a percent. The four rural non-recreation counties (Caribou, Clark, Oneida and Power) had earnings shrink by nearly 2 percent. And while all the rural counties had more people migrating out than in, the recreation counties lost their population at half the rate as the other ones.

The importance of these outdoor options is not surprising to state officials. Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation reported last year that state parks added more than $184 million to the state economy and supplied money to the nearby counties in a variety of ways. Tourism directly brings traffic to businesses up to 50 miles from the parks and department spokeswoman Chelsea Chambers explained that the registration fees for boats and ATVs are sent to the counties where the applicant plans to use it.

“Idaho is growing for a lot of reasons, including all of our recreation. It’s a draw for a lot of people to have these mountains and parks and such a variety of options,” Chambers said.

The state data also indicated some of the economic boosts provided by the recreation options. In Fremont County, Harriman and Henry’s Lake combined to bring $7 million into the area from visitors and employed nearly 180 local workers.

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