Hiking, Biking, Bird Watching Major Economic Drivers in Nebraska

Lake Wanahoo State Recreation Area. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
Lake Wanahoo State Recreation Area, finished in 2012. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
Lake Wanahoo State Recreation Area. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
Tracy Stratman, committee chair of the Nebraska Great Park Pursuit. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
Great Park Pursuit post at Lake Wahanoo State Rec Area. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
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April 30, 2013 - 6:30am

Outdoor recreation brings close to $6 billion to Nebraska every year. That industry is fueled by people participating in activities like hiking, hunting, waterskiing, and bird watching—and programs like the Great Park Pursuit, a statewide scavenger hunt.

Tracy Stratman is committee chair of the Great Park Pursuit, a joint program of Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Nebraska Recreation and Park Association. Organizers hide metal posts in various state parks around Nebraska, then post clues online. Participants use the clues to find the posts, then enter their proof to win prizes like kayaks and fishing poles.

On a recent spring day, Stratman and I followed a clue through prairie grass at Lake Wanahoo State Recreation Area, just north of Wahoo, and found ourselves getting a little lost. But Stratman said wandering through the park is part of the program’s goals—to encourage people to get active outside, and enjoy Nebraska’s state park and recreation areas.

In the past five years, a couple thousand people have participated in the program, including people from seven other states. Activities like these generate lots of money, according to Avery Stonich of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA). Her group recently released a report that found nationwide, annual consumer spending, direct jobs and tax revenues put outdoor recreation on par with other major industries.

Graphic courtesy of Outdoor Industry Association

“People spend $5.7 billion every year to recreate in Nebraska, not just those living in Nebraska, but people traveling to Nebraska to play outside. That supports 74,000 Nebraska jobs,” Stonich said. And Stonich said their findings show the industry grew about 5 percent from 2005-2010.

“That is right through the heart of the recession. The reason is because Americans make outdoor recreation a priority in their lives, even during times of economic hardship. Because it’s a really easy way to get outside, spend time with family and friends, maintain a healthy lifestyle and it doesn’t cost a whole lot of money,” Stonich said.

That’s true in Nebraska, as well. Tourism is a major economic driver in the state. Travel-related spending increased more than $2.3 billion in the past twenty years. And last year, 18 of the top 20 most visited sites were state parks or recreation areas (the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission created a video with some of their data.  Watch it below).

Eric Thompson is director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Bureau of Business research. He’s done research on the economic impacts of specific activities like bird watching tourism in central Nebraska, and said outdoor recreation tourism is a significant industry in the state.

“Nebraska is not a flashy state as far as tourism, but we do have a steadily growing industry with opportunities for business in rural and urban areas. It’s growing steadily but perhaps not spectacularly,” Thompson said.

And encouraging these homegrown kinds of tourism and recreation, like the Great Parks Pursuit, can further help the state’s economy, according to Thompson. Particularly, he added, for those outdoor buffs who will travel to spend money elsewhere, because you keep money from leaving the state by offering Nebraskans more interesting recreation opportunities and tourism at home.  

Stonich said the OIA report demonstrates outdoor recreation needs protection and support in order to continue boosting the economy. Part of that means protecting quality places for people to get outside and enjoy outdoors.

Mark Brohman, executive director of the Nebraska Environmental Trust, agreed, pointing out very little of Nebraska is open to the public—whether it’s free or for a fee.

The Trust uses lottery money to fund all kinds of environmental projects around the state, including setting aside land for public use. In the past 20 years, the Trust has acquired or put conservation easements on about 100,000 acres in Nebraska.

“Many people feel the best way to preserve something for the future is to protect it through easements or acquisitions, allowing organizations like Game and Parks to acquire that land. But at the same time to allow public access, to hunt, to hike, to birdwatch,” Brohman said.

In addition to conservation lands, state leaders continue to work on how to keep state parks funded. Last year, annual state park passes increased by $5, but that didn’t slow interest.  Nebraskans bought more passes than the year before.

This year, Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery introduced a bill that would end state park entry fees for Nebraskans (currently $25 a year or $5 a day), and replace it with a $7 charge on most passenger vehicle registrations. Avery said it would bring in about $6.5 million more per year, although the bill seems unlikely to go anywhere this session. Opponents say registration fees are already high, and the increase could burden low-income Nebraskans.

Back at Lake Wanahoo, our quick walk turned into quite a hike.

Finally, after a call to park staff to make sure we were not on a complete wild goose chase, we retraced our steps back to the first tree grove. And there we found the post. Stratman etched the engraving on the clue sheet, and we completed the first park on the list. Now, only 19 more to go.

The sixth season of the Great Park Pursuit kicks off May 1st.


Video courtesy of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

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