Outdoor recreation in Utah continues to soar. Now there’s a plan to keep it sustainable
Jan 21, 2024, 4:03 PM
(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.
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.
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.”