PS_0716 Outdoor rec | Courtesy Hike for Life 7 copy 2.jpg

A Hike for Life guide leads a walk in Garden of the Gods. Guides are screened, trained and certified, and learn about the history, geology and ecology of the trails they tread so they can teach guests.

Trails, open spaces, parks and forests are helping the Pikes Peak region get back on track as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes.

The outdoor recreation industry has expanded over the past two years and is gaining recognition as an economic mainstay. 

Direct revenue from sales of outdoor gear tops $2 billion a year nationally, said Doug Price, president and CEO of Visit Colorado Springs.

“We know that more Americans participate in outdoor recreation — like 145 million of them — than attend NFL, major league baseball and NHL games combined — that’s 134 million,” Price said. “So this industry nationally, statewide and locally has a huge impact.”

Nationwide in 2019, outdoor recreation employed almost 5.2 million people, who earned more than $226 billion, according to a new report by Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman, Montana-based nonprofit research group. By comparison, the outdoor recreation industry employs about the same number of people as the nation’s hospitals, and twice the number employed in farming. 

Economic benefits also include increased property values adjacent to outdoor facilities and increased tax and fee revenue.

There are indirect benefits as well, including the high value people place on outdoor amenities when they’re choosing a place to live, control of stormwater runoff, air pollution removal and health benefits from increased physical activity.

In addition, people who participate in outdoor activities spend money at other businesses, including restaurants, bars, grocery stores, gas stations and local shops.

Local statistics about the outdoor industry are hard to come by, but the Outdoor Recreation Association put together a report by congressional district in 2019 that showed 79 outdoor retailers, five camps, 24 guides and outfitters, eight manufacturers and 13 nonprofits in the Pikes Peak region, including El Paso, Teller and Fremont counties. That number has likely increased.

“One of the things that’s unique to the outdoor industry is that our infrastructure is largely depending on the places we want to go,” said Becky Leinweber, executive director of the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance. “The nonprofits are associated with conservation, minimizing impacts, doing trail work, all of that.”

The industry embraces businesses that range from individual trail guides to large outfitters like REI and Scheels.

All are benefiting from increased participation in outdoor recreation that was underway before the pandemic. But COVID-19 boosted the industry in 2020, as it offered people safe ways to get out of their homes. And this year, it appears people have an even greater desire to go outdoors.

“[Last year] was a very good year for us, and 2021 is going great,” said Bruce McClintock, founder and owner of Hike for Life, which offers guided walks for residents and visitors of all abilities. “June was our best month ever, and July is looking to be similar.”

VOICE FOR BUSINESSES

“In about the last five years or so, there’s been more understanding of the impact of outdoor recreation,” Leinweber said.

The Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance, a 5-year-old collaborative of outdoor businesses, nonprofits, government entities and individuals, aims to strengthen the industry and shape the future of outdoor recreation.

“We felt like it was time to grow the industry here and to recognize how important it is for businesses to attract workforce,” Leinweber said, adding that outdoor recreational opportunities are among the top-ranked factors businesses and individuals consider when they relocate.

“We worked with the Colorado Springs Airport and the [Colorado Springs] Chamber & EDC on a map called Terminal to Trail that shows how fast you can be on a trail from the airport,” she said.

Until recently, the industry was somewhat taken for granted, she said. But a report by the Chamber & EDC two years ago highlighted the opportunities for growth provided by the experience economy, of which outdoor recreation is a part.

“It really is a draw, and we can make it more of a draw,” she said.

The alliance has become a voice for outdoor businesses that might not be heard alone.

“Our public lands are driven by federal policy or state policy,” she said. “Little individual companies and organizations don’t have a lot of input there. But when we all come together, we really can influence.”

The alliance supports businesses and encourages them to participate in trade shows such as the Outdoor Retailer show that will be held Aug. 10-12 at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver.

“We’ve purchased a booth to promote our region to the CEOs and buyers of outdoor brands,” Leinweber said.

The alliance was selected earlier this month to represent the Pikes Peak region in the Colorado Outdoor Regional Partnerships Initiative, a coalition of seven regional groups created to ensure the state remains a world-class outdoor destination while preserving outdoor assets and quality of life. Benefits include collaborative planning and grant funding.

“One of our challenges is a lot of use in the same, very popular areas,” Leinweber said. “Even before COVID, land managers were starting to feel overwhelmed. It’s really this dual effort to look at the balance between recreation and conservation.”

PROMOTING THE OUTDOORS

Outdoor recreation fuels Colorado Springs’ economic vitality because the city is a base for nearby recreation sites, said Cheryl McCullough, senior director of sports and events at Visit COS.

“A lot of times those folks are already here on vacation, and we’re the anchor spot for them to go out and do hiking, biking or whatever,” she said. “And then we have so many people who work within our recreation industry.”

Outdoor recreation provides about 230,000 jobs in Colorado and produces about $9.7 billion in wages and salaries, she said, citing a 2017 report by the Outdoor Industry Association. The same report states that the industry generates $28 billion in consumer spending annually and $2 billion in state and local tax revenue.

Visits to specific pages of the Visit COS website and inquiries about the location of trails and other amenities have picked up this year, said Melissa Williams, Visit COS director of marketing.

“We also have a trip planner where people can customize their own trip to our region,” Williams said. Use of the trip planner is up 13 percent over last year, she said, and overall, Visit COS’ website traffic has increased 25 percent to date over 2019.

Visit COS is focusing this year on encouraging visitors to explore the trails less traveled, Williams said.

“We’re doing that through programs like Get Out Spread Out, a program that the Trails and Open Space Coalition put together,” she said.

The organization also is promoting sustainable outdoor exploration through Care for Colorado and Leave No Trace principles, urging people to respect the land, pack out trash and stick to trails.

“We support these efforts through various blogs on our website and a ton of social media posts to educate and encourage people to treat our outdoor assets as if they were their own,” she said.

Price said he is optimistic about local trail projects “that are going to be pivotal for us going forward. Sand Creek is one that’s going to be done in the next year. The [Pikes Peak] Greenway Trail, the Cottonwood Creek Trail, the Legacy Loop and even the new Park Union bridge is an example of us being able to connect Downtown to America the Beautiful Park and onto the Westside.”

Price said organizations like the Trails and Open Space Coalition are supporting a 20-year extension of the city sales tax that supports the preservation of outdoor spaces and facilities, along with an increase in the tax from 0.1 percent to 0.2 percent. That could double the amount available for improving trails, building parks and preserving open space from $10 million to $20 million a year.

BOOTS ON THE GROUND

Bruce McClintock got into the outdoor recreation business in 2017 after he retired from 30 years of service in the Air Force.

In starting Hike for Life, “I didn’t want to create another outfitter or a tourism vehicle,” he said. “We created the company to provide that kind of service, but in a way that educated them first and foremost and focused on the idea of nurturing community.”

The company, which employs eight to 10 screened, trained and certified guides, offers excursions to people of all abilities, from basic, entry-level hikes in local parks for trail novices, to summiting Pikes Peak.

His favorite guests are those who don’t know anything about hiking. McClintock and his guides delight in communicating their passion and helping people find the right level for their own abilities and interests.

McClintock, who describes himself as “a lifelong hiker and peak bagger kind of guy,” said he’s constantly run into people who have tried hiking unprepared and underequipped, so he believed that was a niche that needed to be filled.

Bookings began slowly as he developed the company’s values and mission statement and focused on its culture. He formed Hike for Life as a social impact company, determined to give back rather than just make a profit.

“In 2019, we saw some slow growth,” he said. “We were really careful about how quickly we took on guides. We curate every hike, which means that we go out and get our own impression of the distance and elevation gain and difficulty.”

Guides also learn about the history of trails, their flora, fauna and geology.

McClintock asks each guide to designate a preferred nonprofit, preferably something outdoor-oriented. For every hour they work, McClintock donates 10 percent above that to their preferred nonprofits.

“We have upped entry-level to $15 an hour, and guide pay is graduated based on experience and qualifications,” plus premiums for larger groups, he said. Hikes are priced at flat rates.

McClintock has been bootstrapping the business, but this year, he hopes to put back profits into educational social media, blogs and a YouTube channel.

McClintock, who serves on the advisory board of the PPORA, said members seldom talk about how to encourage more people to come to the region.

“That’s just a given,” he said. “Now it’s more about, how do we manage this?”

While members approach that question from different perspectives, “at the end of the day, everybody is having that conversation, and we are still looking for ways to make the region more accessible.”