Report finds visitation to state public lands creates jobs, strengthens local economies


Washington state agencies collaborate on first-of-its-kind economic study

In 2021, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Natural Resources, Washington State Parks, and Washington Recreation and Conservation Office partnered with Earth Economics to determine public visitation and the economic contribution of outdoor recreation on state-managed public lands and measure how spending circulates within the state’s economy. The study, among the first of its kind outside academia, resulted in a final report “Outdoor Recreation on State Lands in Washington.”

Researchers conducted an economic contribution analysis that used mobile device data to estimate visitation and average visitor spending to determine the economic contribution of state lands, including value added to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), full- and part-time jobs supported, labor income, and tax revenue generated.

Visitation increases on Washington state-managed public lands

As many who spend time outdoors likely know, tracking visitation on state-managed lands is difficult. Many state-managed properties have multiple access points, and agencies have limited resources to track visitation over long periods of time. To address this issue, Earth Economics gathered anonymized, aggregated mobile device data from more than 150 million mobile device apps. People using these apps were included in the dataset if they opted in for data sharing. These mobile data were added to a data model that incorporated control variables such as time of year, weather, and air quality to produce a more accurate visitation estimate.

According to the report, state-managed public lands supported 78 million unique visitor days* in 2019 and 87 million unique visitor days in 2020, a 12% increase. These data align with observations from state employees that recreation activity increased on public lands in 2020. This increased visitation includes a dramatic rise in day use in 2020, and a decline in overnight use. The public land closures in early 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the ongoing pandemic itself, likely impacted visitation, though the magnitude of this impact is unknown.

*Each visitor day represents one person present at a state recreation land area for one day. Multi-day or multi-member trips translate to a higher number of visitor days. For example, two people visiting a wildlife area for two days is counted as four visitor days.

Estimated visitor days to state recreation lands, 2019 to 2020.

State-managed public lands support local economies

Visitation estimates provide the foundation for calculating visitor spending. Visitors to state-managed recreation lands supported $5.9 billion in spending on goods and services (direct and indirect). This means that for every $1 spent by recreational users, $1.80 in economic activity is generated within the state economy. This spending supports more than 37,000 full- and part-time jobs, $1.65 billion in labor income (wages), and more than $435 million in local and state tax revenue.

New tools allow state land managers to see on a unit-by-unit basis what counties and states people are traveling from — the above image highlights visitors to Lake Sammamish.

The anonymized mobile device data also give state land managers a better understanding of where visitors are coming from at county, national, and international levels. Washington’s state public lands had visitors from all over the United States, as well as from more than 150 countries, making it very clear that Washington’s state-managed lands are a major draw for outdoor recreation enthusiasts.

Washington’s state-managed public lands host visitors from all over the world.

Using data to better serve the public

The information and tools provided by the report mark a huge improvement in state agency collaboration and understanding of visitation. State land managers will be able to work together in ways not realized before, improving recreational experiences for people and prioritizing resources to monitor recreational impacts, manage wildlife species, and identify areas for growth.

Land managers will also be able to use new economic development tools that allow them to work closely with local leaders to determine economic contributions from local public lands and measure how spending circulates within local economies.

The study and resulting report mark an exciting leap forward in how Washington’s natural resource agencies manage state public lands in Washington. Using these new adaptive management tools, agencies will be able to further enhance outdoor recreational experiences for Washington’s residents and visitors, while also protecting the state’s natural places so people can enjoy them for generations to come.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.