An Analysis of the Outdoor Recreation and
Wilderness Situation in the United States: 1989-2040
A supporting technical document to the 1989 RPA Assessment
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE OUTDOOR RECREATION AND
The Resource Base for Outdoor Recreation and Wilderness
- State and local governments manage over 54 million acres of recreation
lands, over 30 million of which are in the East. Over 95% of the 690 million acres of
federal recreation lands are in the West.
- Private rural lands open for recreation, other than industry-owned
parcels, are declining due to conversion to other uses and to increased closures or more
restrictive access policies. About 23% of private land is open to public recreation.
- Federal agencies manage nearly 89 million acres of designated wilderness
in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Most acreage is in Alaska (56 million
acres); most of the acreage in the lower 48 states are on national forests. In addition,
defacto (wilderness-like) primitive areas exist on federal, state, and private lands.
- More than 7,000 miles of rivers have been designated for inclusion in the
National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, over 85% of which are in the West.
State-designated significant rivers (for recreation, historic, scenic, or wildlife
reasons) number 60,000 miles, over 70% of which are in the East.
- Most downhill skiing capacity is located in the West and especially on
national forest lands. Over two-thirds of the nation's cross-country skiing areas are
located in the Northeast.
The Demand for Outdoor Recreation and Wilderness
- The rate of increase in participation in some outdoor recreation
activities has slowed in recent years. For these activities, increasing use of public
recreation areas largely matches the current rate of increase in population. New
activities are appearing, however, and are being substituted for some of the formerly most
- Extended long-distance vacations are being replaced by more frequent,
close-to-home recreation trips, consequently increasing the importance of recreation
opportunities close to urban areas.
- Participation patterns differ among activities, with some (such as
picnicking) showing infrequent participation by a large segment of society, while other
activities (such as running or jogging) show a frequent participation by a smaller
population group. Physically active recreation activities have become relatively more
- Factors which are strongly related to participation in outdoor recreation
include the availability of opportunity, age, ability and disability, race, education, and
income. Federal and state recreation areas disproportionately serve young- to middle-aged,
able-bodied, white individuals who are most often well educated and in middle-income
- Following the rapid growth of the 1960s and 1970s, the reported rate of
change in wilderness recreation visits slowed in the early 1980s to the point where it
leveled off or even declined in some areas. This decline was due, in part, to the same
general factors influencing all outdoor recreation at that time. Since 1986, reported
wilderness recreation use has begun to increase again. Wilderness recreation visits
account for about 5% of total Forest Service recreation use.
- Interest in nonrecreational values of wilderness, such as scenic,
scientific, educational, conservation, and historic uses, is growing as their significance
becomes better understood and measured. The "demand" for these uses should
increase as total population grows.
- Wilderness is an important component in global health, serving to cleanse
air and water, protect ecosystems and gene pools, and help to regulate world climate.
- The demand for downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, pool swimming,
backpacking, visiting prehistoric sites, running and jogging, and day-hiking will grow
faster than for other outdoor activities. If the American public were to have all the
opportunities wanted and costs of using these opportunities were to remain the same, each
of these activities would increase by at least 30% above current levels by 2000.
- Considering the forecasted number of trips, the most popular recreational
activities by 2040 will be sightseeing, walking for pleasure, pleasure driving, pool
swimming, picnicking, day-hiking, family gatherings, bicycle riding, photography,
stream/lake/ocean swimming, wildlife observation, visiting historic sites, and developed
The Supply of Recreation
- Land-based recreation opportunities are between 5 and 15 times more
available in various portions of the West than they are in the East. Water recreation
opportunities are 2 to 8 times more available in the West.
- An increasingly important limitation to the availability of outdoor
recreation opportunities is access to private land and water, or to public recreation
lands where private properties bar access.
- The public sector is more actively encouraging private investment in
recreation sites, facilities, and services on public lands. This has stimulated a healthy
expansion of recreation opportunities on public lands.
- Public participation in outdoor recreation is highly dependent upon the
availability of opportunities. If opportunities are expanded at the same rates as in the
recent past, trail and developed site land opportunities, stream and lake water
opportunities, and developed winter opportunities will grow most rapidly. Motorized land
and water opportunities and undeveloped snow-based opportunities will grow slowest.
- Management resource availability, access, and facility needs are likely
to be most acute in the East where effective recreation opportunities are least, crowding
is the greatest, and private land closures will have the most impact.
How Maximum Preferred Demand Compares to Availability of
- Comparisons of projected supply and demand for outdoor recreation
opportunities reveal "gaps" for some activities. These gaps occur when preferred
demand, or the number of trips Americans would like to take if there were no shortages of
opportunities, is greater than expected supply, or the number of trips Americans could
take given the scarcities of recreation opportunities that would occur with available
- Projected gaps for land-based activities are much larger than projected
gaps for water-based or snow and ice-based activities.
- Land-based activities with the largest projected shortages appear to be
dispersed activities such as day hiking, wildlife observation, sightseeing, and
- Water-based activities with the largest projected shortages appear to be
pool swimming and non-motorized lake and river activities such as rowing, canoeing, and
- Snow and ice-based activities with the largest projected shortages appear
to be dispersed activities such as cross-country skiing.
Social, Economic, and Environmental Implications of
- The social characteristics of selected multi-county communities across
the United States can be compared with the available recreation opportunities to yield
information on social imbalances. In general, Americans who are elderly, less educated,
part of a racial minority, economically disadvantaged, disabled, or living in cities have
fewer opportunities to participate in resource-based recreation than do others.
- The uneven distribution of opportunities can have adverse social effects,
including reduced family stability, more crime and juvenile delinquency, less opportunity
for social bonding, more social conflict, and slower ethnic and cultural assimilation.
- Increased economic opportunities for the private sector are projected for
several categories of recreation. These include investments in developed recreation areas
and the provision of associated goods, services, and information. Increased government
revenue generated by user fees is expected to be offset by higher management costs for
- Impacts on natural systems from most outdoor recreation and wilderness
uses are minimal compared to more consumptive uses such as lumbering or mining.
Recreational impacts such as soil compaction and erosion are generally local in nature and
the greatest damage occurs during the initial use of an area.
- Outdoor recreation and wilderness use can benefit natural systems through
improved aesthetic quality, greater environmental awareness, and preservation of natural
systems. For example, demand for water opportunities has generated pressure on governments
and industry to improve water quality in rivers, especially near urban areas.
Opportunities for Meeting Outdoor Recreation Needs
- Many ways exist to close the gap between demand and supply of recreation
and wilderness opportunities. Providers can especially make great contributions by better
management and protection of existing environments, resources, and facilities.
- Outdoor recreation opportunity providers can reduce the supply-demand
gaps by improving services through increasing responsiveness to the public, and through
interagency and public-private sector cooperation and coordination.
- Research identifying recreation and nonrecreation benefits of wilderness
and development of better methods of measuring and comparing variables can generate
additional alternatives to reduce the supply-demand gap.
Obstacles Hindering Attainment of Opportunities
- Obstacles which could block opportunities to narrow the recreation and
wilderness supply-demand gap do exist. A major problem is the imbalance between recreation
and wilderness land distribution (mostly in the West) and the population distribution
(mostly in the East).
- Private landowners are often hesitant to provide access to their land for
public use without economic incentives or protection of the uses for which they own the
- Insufficient funding, information, cooperation, and coordination among
agencies contributes to problems in reducing the recreation-wilderness supply-demand gap.
Outdoor Recreation and Wilderness Program Implications
- National forests near urban areas represent one of the most important
opportunities to meet the increasing demand for outdoor recreation closer to people's
homes. Better information about these opportunities, partnerships with local government
and private entrepreneurs, education of the visitor, facility upgrades, and intensified
management can improve opportunities on these national forests.
- Protection of wilderness and wilderness-like areas and enhancement of
non-recreational uses should rise dramatically in importance in the management of the
- Overcrowding and user conflicts will intensify in the future, especially
on eastern national forests. Educating users and managers, redistribution of use
concentrations, and greater use of volunteers are needed to help alleviate these problems.
- National forests typically contain special places and features, some of
which are unique and irreplaceable. Every forest is special in some way, and the special
features and values making them unique need to be protected. This is especially true for
- Increasing public access to both public and private properties will be
necessary in the future. More exchanges, easements, acquisitions, and partnerships may be
needed in the future to provide this access.
- Quality, safety, and convenience will become increasingly important
management targets on national forests. Protection of high-quality scenery, better
facilities, control of littering and other human impacts, and upgrading of vistas, trails,
and services will be demanded by future recreationists.
- Carrying out an expanded mission in providing recreation opportunities
and improving wilderness management for the American public will require an expanded and
commensurately accelerated and funded recreation and wilderness research program.
Particularly needed are improved techniques for intensified management, monitoring
wilderness uses, and values, planning, and marketing.
- The major role for the Forest Service and other federal agencies is to
manage the recreation estate to provide access to quality recreation opportunities for all
who care to participate while maintaining the quality of the resource and facilitating
other multiple-use activities.
Cordell, H. Ken; John C. Bergstrom; Lawrence A. Hartmann; and Donald B.K. English. 1990.
An Analysis of the Outdoor Recreation and Wilderness Situation in the United States:
1989-2040. General Technical Report RM-189. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of
Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station. 112 p.