If you take Exit 91 off Interstate 70 on your way through central Utah, you will travel through the Emery County valleys. You won’t find many people – and if you stop here you might think that’s all Emery has to offer: miles of roads, acres of pasture land, and the features of a vanished population.
A few miles north the road takes you to Orangeville, right in the heart of Joe’s Valley.
Here, converted vans line the Joe’s Valley Food Ranch parking lot and populate the streets near Cup of Joe’s, the only coffee shop in town. The vans come from all over the country and are driven by groups of 20 people looking at the day’s breakfast selection. You are here to climb.
Joe’s Valley has become a mecca for climbers over the past 15 years. In the spring and fall, the small town can see visitors from over 20 countries and six continents.
The growing number of small businesses in Orangeville reflects this unique opportunity: The cafe and supermarkets supply climbing chalk and equipment, while the Boulder House, Hangout and Joe’s Valley Campgrounds are new additions to the city’s climbing industry.
But it wasn’t always like that.
A decade ago, Orangeville was in decline. The county’s mines, the heart of Orangeville’s economy, shrank as coal production declined. The city’s unemployment rate continued to rise while the county sought a solution. Rural communities wondered how they could feed themselves and found an answer in the outdoor industry.
In Oakridge, Oregon, the former logging town saw an economic revival after the sawmills shut down on its mountain bike trails. They bring in millions of dollars annually and resulted in the opening of a bakery, microbrewery, outdoor store, and guiding service.
In southwest Virginia, production and coal mining have declined by over 50% in the past few decades. The region turned to the outdoor leisure economy, adding thousands of leisure and hospitality jobs. Travel expenses in the region increased by $ 300 million. In 2019, Virginia State Parks raised $ 343 million and supported over 4,000 jobs.
The outdoor industry is booming nationwide. Outdoor recreation has grown faster than the economy since measurements began, and its benefits have reached rural communities across the country.
Since the early 1970s, the population, employment and personal income in western rural districts with the highest proportion of federal states have grown twice as fast as in districts with the lowest proportion of federal states. Non-metropolitan areas, where outdoor recreation dominates the economy, or “recreation areas”, are growing in population, while non-recreation areas are losing residents. In nearly every metric, the presence of recreation as a characteristic of the local economy improves people’s wellbeing.
To understand the potential of the outdoor industry for economic growth in rural areas, the Environmental Protection Agency launched a pilot program in 2019 called Recreation Economy for Rural Communities, which aims to invest a number of small town economies to support the development of their outdoor spaces.
This type of investment works. In 2019, for every US dollar of general tax revenue donated to Virginia state parks, state parks raised US $ 17.68. In the same year, the national park system generated more than 30 times as much as the federal government invested. Meanwhile, only local success stories like those of Orangeville, Oakridge, and Southwest Virginia are popping up.
Of course, investing in public land and the outdoor recreational industries will not be the silver bullet that solves all of rural America’s problems. Rural flight trends are unstoppable in many areas, while some regions lack the natural attractions or consumer bases necessary to take advantage of the outdoor economy.
What is becoming harder to ignore, however, is the fact that well-directed investments in nature mean consistent results in a nearly trillion dollar industry that is only growing.
As federal, state and regional governments are looking for new channels to promote sustainable economic growth, the leisure industry should play a central role. This requires investing in public land, managing and setting up parks, and expanding community programs like RERC to encourage growth in the private sector.
The result will be thriving economies, customer satisfaction and an insight into how sustainability and development can work side by side.
And for Orangeville, Utah residents and many who like them across the country, it means a second chance to live where they are at home.
Thomas Hochman is a student at the University of Vermont’s Honors College. His writing has appeared in Merion West and The American Spectator. He is a member of the American Conservation Coalition.