Wildfires Redirect or Eliminate Recreation Spending in Rural Areas
Besides devastating loss of life and damage to property and structures, the West’s wildfire season also affects the $887 billion recreation economy that is the lifeblood of some rural communities.
Paul Wolff was prepared to spend his vacation and money in rural Oregon, cycling around the state as part of a bike tour that also supports community development.
But when wildfire forced the organizers of the tour to cancel the event for the first time ever, Wolff’s travel dollars wound up in Anacortes, Washington, and the nearby San Juan Islands.
Wolff is not a big spender, he said. “We camped and cooked a lot of our own food,” said Wolff, who is a self-employed engineer who lives in Norris, Tennessee.
But he and about 15 friends also ate in restaurants and “stopped for a beer on the route each day,” he said, supporting local businesses along the way.
Across the Northwest, businesses that rely on recreation and tourism dollars have faced one of the most disruptive wildfire seasons on record. For Cycle Oregon alone, the event Wolff was going to participate in, 2,000 cyclists either changed plans or canceled their trips altogether because fire and smoke made conditions hazardous and unhealthy.
Disruptions like that can have a big cumulative impact on recreation-dependent communities.
“We’re coming in on three quarters of a million dollars of economic impact that we bring in just by doing this seven days throughout the rural communities,” Cycle Oregon Executive Director Steve Schultz told Jefferson Public Radio. “To not be able to do that, and not be able to go in and do what our passion is, is really devastating,” Schultz said.
Also in Oregon, Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival was forced to cancel nine outdoor shows in August and September because of air quality concerns. These cancellations meant $400,000 in lost revenue, as well as a substantial drop in renewals for the upcoming season, according to the Medford Mail Tribune. Festival organizers estimate that 85 percent of festival-goers come from outside of the state.
In Northwest Montana, news and photos of the loss of Glacier National Park’s historic Sperry Chalet spread widely across social media. Nearby Whitefish, Montana, reported a number of lodging cancellations in September and October because smoke and air quality concerns, according to the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau. According to Executive Director Dylan Boyle, the group does not have definitive impact numbers to report, as the fires came at the end of the summer season.
For a comparison, Boyle pointed to August of 2017, another month of historic fires in the area. During the closure of Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road, “visitation decreased in the park by 14 percent compared to the previous August,” Boyle reported in an email.
“The effect of that closure rippled into the Flathead Valley. In Whitefish, lodging tax collections from July to September 2015 dropped by 2 percent over the previous year. While that decline might seem small, it was the first time that lodging tax collections decreased during the summer since the economic recession of 2009.”
The Going-to-the-Sun Road at Glacier is the region’s biggest draw.
But others say it’s easy to overplay the impact of wildfire on the travel plans. Even with the challenges of the region’s fires, the summer of 2017 brought record visits to the region and to Glacier National Park.
“It’s definitely not all doom and gloom,” said Whitefish’s Lisa Jones. Jones, who has lived in the region for 27 years, promotes recreation and tourism and is married to a forest ecologist.
“With today’s technology, we’re able to quickly pass information along to our region’s visitors, tell them what activities are available, direct them to places where the fires aren’t going to impact their plans,” said Jones. “With social media, with Twitter, we’re able to do our jobs in seconds. It used to take us days or weeks to deliver that same information. We’ve honed our communications skills,” Jones pointed out, “so that we can tell people the East side of the Park is wide open and clear. Head over there and go fishing for rainbows or for your hike.”
“Perception is huge,” Jones said. “Misinterpretation that everything is shut down leads to cancelations of trips.” She said that media coverage of the wildfires, photos of the burning buildings, contributes to the false perception. “In 2015, I sent a letter to all of the local media, and some national media, telling them basically to not scare people away. The wildfires are not going to shut down the whole region. We’ve built a community infrastructure of diverse activities in diverse places. And I can see from this season’s coverage that the media narrative has shifted.”
Nationally, the outdoor recreation industry generates $887 billion economic activity.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, vast areas of Western states are expected to face additional temperatures and corresponding wildfire risks due to climate change. In addition, droughts are expected to increase in number and length, creating the likelihood for more fires in the region’s forests and grasslands. UCS-USA reports that the average number of annual wildfires larger than 1,000 acres has grown from about 160 in the 1990s to 250 in the first 12 years of this century. And