Outdoor recreation in Utah continues to soar. Now there’s a plan to keep it sustainable

Jan 21, 2024, 4:03 PM

People visit Bryce National Park on May 18, 2023. Utah's outdoors recreation division released a ne...

People visit Bryce National Park on May 18, 2023. Utah's outdoors recreation division released a new plan to enhance recreational opportunities across Utah while preserving natural beauty. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox points to the state’s vast natural wonders as one of its strongest features.

“I joke all the time that when God created Utah, he was showing off,” he said. “We have these amazing five national parks we’re very proud of; and now close to 50 state parks that we’re all very proud of, but there are hundreds of places that, if they were anywhere else, they would also be state or national parks. That’s how fortunate we are to live in this beautiful place.”

Some of these were fairly secretive, but Utah isn’t a secret anymore. It was the fastest-growing state in between 2010 and 2020, and recent population estimates put it in the top 10 in numeric growth.

Meanwhile, outdoor tourism has skyrocketed over the past decade, too. Zion National Park visitation, for instance, jumped from 2.8 million in 2013 to 4.6 million last year, nearly a 65% increase over the past decade. Similar trends are visible across many outdoor recreation areas, as their popularity soars.

All of this means more people are recreating at Utah’s parks, trails, slopes, bodies of water and other outdoor places. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does require more planning to prepare for the pros and cons of growth, says Jason Curry, director at the Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation.

That’s why Utah is turning to a new strategic plan to better manage the issue. The first-of-its-kind plan, released Wednesday, centers on four “cardinal directions” to guide sustainable outdoor recreation across the state:

  • Build and support collaborative processes: Enhance collaboration between different government agencies and private sectors that help support the development and maintenance of outdoor infrastructure.
  • Improve awareness and education: Inform people about stewardship and safety principles, but also the benefits of going outdoors.
  • Increase access to outdoor recreation: Maintain and improve existing outdoor recreation “assets,” while also creating new “high-quality” recreation opportunities.
  • Increase economic and health benefits: Support local and regional planning for “diverse outdoor opportunities” that support the economic and mental health benefits outdoor recreation can provide.

How the plan came together

Utah established an office focused on outdoor recreation in 2013 — the first state to do so, before the office was elevated to a state division in 2022. Curry said work to create a strategic plan began a little over a year ago, forming a guide toward the goals of outdoor recreation in the state.

A commission composed of various state lawmakers, state agencies, educators, nonprofits and businesses held several workshops and focus groups across the state to gather feedback on what the document should include. Overall, it aims to build on the state’s successes and address the challenges that pop up along the way, and help dictate how about $50 million in annual state funds are spent.

Hand cyclists pedal across a bridge over the Jordan River section of Parleys Trail in West Valley on Sept. 28, 2023.
Hand cyclists pedal across a bridge over the Jordan River section of Parleys Trail in West Valley on Sept. 28, 2023. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Utah’s outdoor recreation created $8.1 billion in economic output, supporting over 70,000 jobs and $3.6 billion in wages in 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported last month. It notes outdoor activities like RVing, boating/fishing, hunting and off-highway vehicle riding are the top drivers in the state’s recreation economy.

Outdoor recreation is also considered one of the larger economic drivers in rural Utah, especially in counties close to national parks. And experts say it offers many mental and physical benefits.

People participate in an archery “fun shoot” at Antelope Island State Park in Syracuse on July 19, 2023.
People participate in an archery “fun shoot” at Antelope Island State Park in Syracuse on July 19, 2023. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

The downside is growing popularity led to new challenges, including wear and tear on trails and the need for parking and amenities. There’s also been an increase in damage to public lands from vandalism, as well as more search-and-rescue calls, many times involving people unfamiliar with handling rugged terrain.

“We figure if we educate people on how to recreate safely and keep them out of those dangerous situations, how to be prepared, we can have a huge impact on reducing that workload and that demand,” Curry said, adding that “responsible” recreation is an important piece of the plan.

The future of Utah recreation

The efforts to provide greater collaboration outlined in the plan may help federal, state, local and tribal entities in Utah have better access to resources that address new outdoor recreation opportunities and challenges. This may also lead to new parks, trails and greenways across the state to meet the growing recreation needs.

Both Curry and Cox called the plan a “working document” that is “adaptable” to fit changes in the state as they occur. It’s also set up to be flexible, to fit the different needs of every region, so communities can decide to focus on a more tourist-centric approach, or on creating recreation opportunities for residents.

The ultimate goal is to enhance all the recreational opportunities across Utah while preserving its pristine natural beauty.

“We want our outdoor recreation plan and infrastructure we put in place to be sustainable,” Curry said. “We want this to be something that future generations … to be proud of we’ve left.”

KSL 5 TV Live

Local News

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, talking about the proposed changes that are happening to downt...

Carole Mikita and Michael Houck, KSL TV

‘This plan is ambitious’: Salt Lake County Mayor Wilson talks about the revitalization of Salt Lake City

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson spoke to KSL TV about all the proposed changes that could hit downtown Salt Lake City.

10 hours ago

A silhouetted man sitting in a chair on a phone call....

Matt Gephardt and Sloan Schrage, KSL TV

New federal data shows favorite methods of scammers targeting Utahns

Over 26,200 Utahns reported getting hit by fraud to the Federal Trade Commission last year. And one out of five of those Utahns lost money to imposters.

10 hours ago

The Salt Lake City Police Department is releasing the Utah driver license photo of Jordan Gonzales ...

Carlysle Price

SLCPD requested help finding a missing, at-risk man

The Salt Lake City Police Department said they are looking for information about a missing, at-risk man.

11 hours ago

Odin Meacham, a 30-year-old man from Duchesne County, was found guilty Monday on assaulting officer...

Emily Ashcraft, KSL.com

Utah man convicted of assaulting law enforcement at US Capitol on Jan. 6

A man from Utah has been found guilty of seven felonies for actions at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

11 hours ago

A Utah DPS helicopter helping Salt Lake County Search and Rescue getting a hiker off a mountain aft...

Michael Houck

A pair of Utah treasure hunters needed rescuing after getting hurt

Two hikers needed help getting off Lookout Peak after one hurt their leg while looking for treasure on Sunday morning. 

12 hours ago

Officials obtained video footage from Orem Recreation Center, and needs help identifying this suspe...

Carlysle Price and Brianna Chavez. KSL TV

Police working to identify Orem Recreation Center sexual assault suspect

Officials reported a man sexually assaulted someone at The Orem Recreation Center Wednesday afternoon. Police said they need help identifying the suspect.

12 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Photo courtesy of Artists of Ballet West...

Ballet West

The rising demand for ballet tickets: why they’re harder to get

Ballet West’s box office is experiencing demand they’ve never seen before, leaving many interested patrons unable to secure tickets they want.

Electrician repairing ceiling fan with lamps indoors...

Lighting Design

Stay cool this summer with ceiling fans

When used correctly, ceiling fans help circulate cool and warm air. They can also help you save on utilities.

Side view at diverse group of children sitting in row at school classroom and using laptops...

PC Laptops

5 internet safety tips for kids

Read these tips about internet safety for kids so that your children can use this tool for learning and discovery in positive ways.

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why printer security should be top of mind for your business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light up your home with these top lighting trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for hassle-free computer repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Outdoor recreation in Utah continues to soar. Now there’s a plan to keep it sustainable