Outdoor Rec Hikes to New Heights

Getting outside is not just a way to stay happy and healthy. It’s one of the primary drivers of commerce, with economic and job growth more than doubling the national average last year.

Outdoor recreation accounted for $1.1 trillion in economic output in 2022, according to a new report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, outpacing domestic growth. The industry grew 4.8% compared to the previous year, compared to total gross domestic product growth of 1.9%, with outdoor recreation employment expanding at double the national rate.

In Pennsylvania, recreation added nearly $17 billion to the economy last year. That’s a 12% increase from 2021. The industry also provided 164,000 jobs in the state, a 7% increase.

Pennsylvania is making significant investments in expanding outdoor access and opportunities. The Office of Outdoor Recreation was established with $422,000 as part of last year’ state budget with a goal to not only grow outdoor resources but strengthen and unite existing infrastructure.

In the fall of 2023, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources awarded $52.5 million for 225 recreation and conservation projects across Pennsylvania. Included in that funding are 23 trail projects, land protection and conservation efforts, protecting nearly 6,835 acres of open space, 13 projects for river conservation, 13 community and watershed forestry projects, as well as 99 development and rehabilitation projects on existing trails.

As part of that funding, the city of Bethlehem received a $500,000 grant to help with land acquisition that will connect the South Bethlehem Greenway to the Saucon Rail Trail, creating 14 miles of contiguous trail in the region and closing one of the state’s Top 10 Trail Gaps.

PEC is working on several trail expansion projects, such as the Turtle Creek Connector Trail in Pittsburgh and the Liberty Bell Trail in the Philadelphia area. Both trails will provide recreation and transit to residents and visitors alike.

With more trails and parks come greater opportunities to improve access to the outdoors, particularly for historically underserved communities.

DCNR is currently working on updating its statewide recreation plan with the mission of making the outdoors a welcoming and safe space for all. The agency partners with local groups to reduce barriers to recreation, such as making facilities accessible regardless of physical ability and training staff to make visitors feel safe and welcome on public lands.

Other initiatives are underway to make recreation more accessible in the state. Our affiliate organization, the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers (POWR) opened a new Statewide Waterway Access Grant Mini Grant Program (SWAG) last year, which will fund non-motorized boating opportunities. The grant program, supported by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, provides grants of up to $30,000 to create new or improve existing access points along the region’s waterways. An example of the kinds of projects the program aims to support is the new adaptive kayak launch at Quemahoning Reservoir in Somerset County, which allows mobility-challenged kayakers to enter and exit the water.

And just in time for all of these initiatives, we teamed up with Purple Lizard to craft the new Pennsylvania Statewide Outdoor Recreation Map. Featuring 115 rail trails and bikeways, 30 long-distance hiking trails, 124 state parks, 20 state forests and more, the map is the first of its kind showcasing the connectivity of public lands and recreational resources.

We and our partners believe that the more people who can enjoy the outdoors, the more they’ll want to protect these landscapes for generations to come.