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Where climate, jobs and health meet: The outdoors

Courtesy of Protect Our Winters/Photographer Scott Markewitz.

Americans look to the outdoors for solace and recreation. It’s been true since our foundation as a nation and it became even more clear last year. For more than 50 million of us, the outdoors are where many of our happiest memories are created, and where we go in challenging times to reflect and recenter. Our lifestyles are enriched by skiing, snowboarding, climbing, trail running, mountain biking and other outdoor sports. At Protect Our Winters we call this borderless, diverse group the Outdoor State.  

The future of outdoor recreation and the communities where the outdoors support a vibrant economy are completely reliant on our immediate commitment to solve the climate crisis. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan is a “put your money where your mouth is” commitment to the lifestyle and livelihood of America’s outdoor recreation hubs. Initiatives within the plan make meaningful strides toward stabilizing both our climate and revitalizing job markets in the places so many of us call home. By acting now, we have a shot at protecting the powder fields we ride, the forests we hike, the flowing streams we fish and the clear skies under which we camp. You know — the exhilarating parts of life.

A growing outdoor state

Outdoor recreation is more than a hobby to millions of Americans. It is a way of life and what sustains them through challenging times. In 2019, half of Americans recreated outdoors. We know from the empty shelves of camping gear and running shoes, the wait time for bicycles, and from ski and snowboard sales figures that last year inspired even more people to recreate outdoors, many for the first time. A 2021 Special Report from the Outdoor Industry Association found that millions turned to outdoor recreation to spend time with loved ones, exercise safely, stay healthy and reduce screen-time fatigue.

To protect American’s access to outdoor recreation, which is a vital component of millions of people’s physical and mental health, we must protect those spaces from shrinking winters, drought, extreme heat waves and wildfires. That means addressing climate change as an imminent threat to the American outdoor lifestyle.

In the last 15 months, people did more than pick up a new hobby outdoors. The COVID-19 pandemic and the remote work culture it forced caused enormous hardship, but also offered many people a chance to reimagine what work and life can look like. Newly untethered from their desks, people are more free to choose where they live based on lifestyle, not a job. 

Many heard the mountains calling and they went. This is evident in housing data and school enrollment in regions where outdoor recreation is central to life. Mountain towns across Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming and New England, along with beach towns on both coasts are seeing an influx of not only visitors, but also new residents. USPS and U.S. Census Bureau numbers show that migration into the Lake Tahoe region in California is up 24 percent, while Breckenridge leads Colorado mountain towns with 19 percent and double digit increases appear throughout the Pacific Northwest, northern Arizona and New England. 

People are choosing their dream way of life and for many it is rooted in the outdoors. Within the American Jobs Plan are investments in clean energy, electric vehicles, and a grid that can power a renewable future alongside efforts to provide broadband access across America to connect people wherever they choose to live and work. 

Protecting and replacing jobs in one

This is our once in a lifetime shot to rebuild the country’s infrastructure in a way that meaningfully addresses climate change. The American Jobs Plan initiatives directed at rebuilding with renewables will create new jobs for the workers displaced by the market-driven shift away from fossil fuels, thousands of whom live in the same areas that are seeing an influx of new residents. And as a bonus will help to simultaneously protect the millions of climate-dependent outdoor recreation jobs across the U.S.

Outdoor recreation is a massive $887 billion industry that directly drives 7.6 million jobs. The Bureau of Economic Analysis calculated that real GDP for the outdoor recreation economy grew by 3.9 percent in 2017 — faster than the 2.4 percent growth of the overall U.S. economy. So, while thousands of new jobs in the renewable energy economy will help address climate change (think grid upgrades, EV charging stations, solar and wind installations, etc), we must also think of protecting the 7.6 million jobs generated by outdoor recreation. 

The climate is already changing, with shorter snow seasons and longer wildfire seasons that increasingly impact outdoor recreation jobs. Protect Our Winters’ 2018 Economic Report shows how climate change-induced swings in snowpack from year-to-year impact mountain region economies. These effects ripple far beyond the ski slopes to nearly all sectors of these communities. Outdoor recreation related jobs are in a growing industry that can thrive without any direct subsidies. But, sustaining those jobs into the future requires taking bold action on climate. 

Many regions that are outdoor recreation hubs are also places where people work in fossil fuel development. The American Jobs Plan will create new, high-paying jobs to help offset inevitable continuing losses from the shift away from fossil fuels, by investing in a modern grid and constructing a clean energy infrastructure. In addition to new technology, the AJP’s efforts to plug orphan gas wells that are leaking methane will help create jobs in areas where the waning fossil fuel industry is leaving workers stranded.

More than a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt — foreshadowing a moment like ours when big ideas would be required — posited, “the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

We are behind the curve on Roosevelt’s call to act. But if we take bold action to rebuild our economy and the national infrastructure in a clean, future-forward way, Roosevelt’s vision can have a happy ending, driven by the spirit of American innovation.

When given a choice on how and where we live, it is clear that the outdoors are a deciding factor for many Americans. This integral part of the American way of life is completely dependent on a stable climate. The American Jobs Plan is an important step in ensuring that the outdoors can provide a healthy lifestyle and stable livelihood for generations to come.

This is the moment for the representatives and senators in Congress from regions with massive outdoor recreation economies across the Sierra, Rockies, Pacific Northwest, New England and Appalachia to put their votes where their talking points are on jobs. Support for the American Jobs Plan will help to shore up the outdoor recreation economies they represent, while also creating new, high-paying jobs for their constituents. A majority of voters support the plan

Mario Molina is the executive director of the non-profit organization Protect Our Winters, which empowers passionate outdoor people to affect systemic solutions to climate change. Follow him and the organization on Twitter: @maedmolina and @protectwinters.

Tags American West Climate change Conservation Environment Joe Biden Mario Molina outdoors Parks Recreation vacation work-life balance
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