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US Forest Service visitor report shows economic, health benefits of America’s national forests and grasslands

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WASHINGTON, JULY 26, 2012 AT 4:00 PM EDT - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today released findings of a survey that show U.S. Forest Service lands continue to be a value that attracted 165.7 million visitors in 2011, and that visitor spending in nearby communities sustained more than 200,000 full- and part-time jobs.

The National Visitor Use Monitoring survey conducted by the Forest Service provides estimates of the amount of recreational visits to each national forest and describes a number of important characteristics of those visits. The report shows that visitors are overwhelmingly satisfied with their experiences on national forests and grasslands.

Highlights of the 2011 report include:

  • As in previous years, 94 percent of visitors rated their national forests and grasslands experience a great value and felt safe during their experience.
  • People living within 60 miles of Forest Service lands made up half of the visits while 26 percent traveled more than 200 miles.
  • Visitors who lived more than 200 miles opted for longer stays and visited several sites, indicating decisions to spread their travel costs over longer periods.
  • The number of overnight stays increased by more than 2 million visits compared to previous years’ results.
  • Fifty-five percent of visitors go to a forest or grassland to participate in physical activities.
  • Nearly 60 percent of visitors selected one of the following for their preferred physical activity: hiking or walking, downhill skiing, viewing nature, fishing and hunting.

This year’s results indicate that visitors are being somewhat more careful in their recreation spending.   Compared to previous years, there are more visits by people who lived closer to forests, and fewer by visitors who traveled from more than 200 miles away. That also means more day trips and fewer overnight trips. But for those people who opted to stay overnight, they more often chose camping on national forests and grasslands to help cut costs.  

“This report reflects that Americans continue to have an special connection with their national forests and grasslands,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “It also reflects that our public lands are good bargains that benefit all Americans. The nation’s public lands are one of America’s greatest travel benefits.” 

The benefits are provided through the management of more than 150,000 miles of trails, which includes hiking, biking, equestrian and motorized trails, and more than 10,000 developed recreation sites. Visitors have a wide choice of recreational activities with 57,000 miles of stream, 122 alpine ski areas, 338,000 heritage sites; 9,100 miles of National Scenic Byways; 22 National Recreation Areas; 11 National Scenic Areas; six National Monuments; and one national preserve. 

The survey helps the Forest Service understand how visitors are using forests and grasslands, which in turn help them to better promote assets of those lands as outlined in President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative. The initiative calls on focus is to raise awareness of the value and benefits of federal lands while enhancing recreational activities, among other things.

Outdoor recreation benefits American society today more than ever. America spends $2 trillion dollars on crisis medical health care. Overweight, obesity, and physical inactivity are major risk factors for chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Physical activity is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, and outdoor recreation is the natural solution – a disease prevention solution – and part of the nation’s existing wellness infrastructure. 

“Americans’ sense of place and national identity can be enhanced by experiencing historic sites and landscapes that represent the abundant natural and cultural heritage of the nation,” Tidwell said. “We want them to come to know their public lands as an extension of their backyards.”

The Forest Service’s Southern Research Station recently published a national study, Outdoor Recreation Trends and Futuresshowing that Americans’ current choices for outdoor recreation is evolving. A clear growth area including activities geared toward viewing and photographing nature. The study also showed growing participation in skiing, challenge activities such as rock climbing, equestrian activities such as horseback riding and motorized water use such as waterskiing.

USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer, and lender.

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