Why study outdoor recreation in the American West?—Mara MacDonell

Industry, based on landscape, has been foundational to the American West’s cultural and ideological underpinnings since the beginning of colonization. While natural resource extraction industries (mining, logging, ranching, agriculture) spurred westward expansion and continues to be a significant industry in the West, a new industry is of increasing importance, outdoor recreation. Both the extraction and outdoor recreation industries are reliant on the vast public lands and natural resources of the West.  These industries are both economic drivers, yet often seen in moral opposition, a binary on which to delineate land use conflict as well as adjudicate ideological concerns in a changing physical and social landscape.

In recent fights to protect places such as Bristol Bay, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and Bears Ears National Monument from proposed extraction, the outdoor recreation industry has been a vocal and generous conservation advocate.  However, the role of the outdoor recreation industry in public lands protection is complicated. While previous research has explored environmental and social change in the West, outdoor recreation, as an industry, is not often the focal point.

The outdoor recreation industry is a $689 billion-dollar industry built on myths of manifest destiny and privilege—and currently positioned as a panacea for former extraction communities across the West. What does this mean for the rural communities the recreation economy plans to save? What does this mean for the public lands adjacent? Who will benefit? Who will lose? And who drives these conversations?

While writers and journalists have asked these questions, the academic engagement of these ideas has been limited. Engaging with outdoor recreation means engaging with topics including identity, power, industry, health, and nature. It requires a dual acknowledgement that outdoor recreation is deeply ingrained in the human experience– a reprieve from labor and work– but also an industry with increasing power.

From my personal experience, I know outdoor recreation can facilitate deep, life-enriching experiences and positively develop land ethics. However, I also know that the outdoor recreation industry complicates this narrative, by using people and landscapes for financial gain, with unclear reciprocity to the community and land. Ultimately, my research aims to understand these conflicting goals and look for paths forward which discuss land in a manner that is less dichotomous, more nuanced, and more equitable.

Ski runs cut distinctively through the forest. Photo courtesy of author.

Vans and campers park on the receded shoreline of Lake Powell. Photo courtesy of author.

A hiking trail in the San Juan mountains. Photo courtesy of author.