Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series about the outdoor recreation economy and its role in shaping the social, cultural, and physical landscapes in West Virginia. This story will introduce the outdoor recreation economy through the eyes of someone who was drawn to and is supported by the wealth of outdoor opportunities in the Mountain State. Now, he’s in a position to help shape the future through his role as the executive director of the Mountaineer Trail Network Recreation Authority.
In August of 2002, I packed up everything I owned into my first car, quit my lucrative high school job as a grill cook at the local ice cream shop, and shoved off from my comfortable hometown in Massachusetts to move to West Virginia. It was an ambitious first step given that I had no job lined up, no place to live, and had yet to find out if I would be accepted to West Virginia University in the fall. I arrived in Morgantown to a humid jungle filled with dense green mountains, friendly people, and new-to-me Appalachian culture.
Growing up in the mountains of New England, I was an avid backpacker, snowboarder, paddler, and runner before moving to West Virginia. Knowing I needed a job to support myself through school, it was important to find a job I’d enjoy. After some youthful persistence, I eventually landed an entry-level position as a sales associate at Pathfinder of West Virginia, Morgantown’s local gear shop. Although I was extremely green and didn’t know much about sales or how to link people with the right outdoor equipment, the staff was willing to show me the ropes.
In the coming weeks and months, I would sign off on my first rental apartment, get accepted to West Virginia University, and buy my first mountain bike so I could join my new coworkers and friends on group rides. Those first few years were spent immersing myself in the mountains, rivers, and culture of West Virginia: long road bike rides with little-to-no sleep on the weekends, after-work trips to local ski resorts, and late-night excursions with the outdoor community that welcomed me with open arms.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, there was a hidden actor that was supporting me as I entered this next phase of my life. It paid my bills, introduced me to new friends, took me on adventures, and kept me healthy in both mind and body. That actor was the outdoor recreation economy, and my path to where I am today would not be the same without it.
Casting a Wide Net
During COVID-19, millions ventured outside when indoor activities were sidelined, resulting in West Virginia’s outdoor resources being pushed to the limit. Public lands were flooded with new visitors, local housing was bought up by out-of-state residents, and an influx of new organizations centered around outdoor recreation sprouted to meet the development needs for this burgeoning market.
With all this new activity, the possibility for West Virginia’s residents and longtime local organizations to be conflicted regarding the best course of action has become painstakingly evident. While outdoor recreation can provide an economic boost for local communities, it can also cause negative impacts by degrading natural areas and stressing the local housing markets. As we grow our outdoor recreation economy in West Virginia, it’s important that we empower residents and local organizations to improve the health and wealth of the communities they represent. But before we get too far into the woods, we must define the outdoor recreation economy, which includes a wide variety of sectors in its net.
I like to define outdoor recreation broadly as any activity taking place in a natural environment. People with different identities, cultures, backgrounds, and social networks often choose to live in or visit West Virginia because of the wealth of adventure opportunities here. These recreationists often organize themselves into social clubs, community advocacy groups, and educational and environmental non-profits to support and expand outdoor access.
Outdoor recreation directly impacts our local, state, and regional economies via consumer activity across myriad businesses, like companies that manufacture outdoor gear, apparel, and accessories. Local retailers sell these goods, often offering advice and support to their customers. Outfitters supply rental equipment, and guide services lead participants on adventure trips. The outdoor recreation economy also supports service industry businesses, like gas stations, restaurants, breweries, coffee shops, and art galleries, that offer amenities and entertainment for both residents and tourists in outdoor destinations.
Lodging, such as motels, rental homes, RV campgrounds, and wilderness tent sites, is vital for folks visiting from far away. Not only do these businesses ebb and flow with the seasons, but so too do the local convention and visitors bureaus that often see operational funding come directly from hotel and motel taxes.
A Leading Economic Driver
Each year more than half of Americans spend time and money in public lands like national parks and forests, state recreation areas, private resorts, and municipal parks. According to its 2017 study on the outdoor recreation economy, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) reported that Americans spent upwards of $887 billion on outdoor recreation, leading to roughly 7.6 million jobs and over $65 million in federal income tax revenue.
These numbers are only the tip of the iceberg regarding what outdoor recreation can do on a local level in rural communities. In its 2017 report, the OIA found that the outdoor recreation sector was the fourth largest economic driver in the United States, showing greater revenues than pharmaceuticals, gasoline and fuel, and education.
As West Virginia moves further into a transition economy where fossil fuels and other extractive industries are no longer the dominant economic drivers they once were, the outdoor recreation economy has shown promise to help rebuild communities that have been negatively impacted by the industrial decline. For instance, the outdoor recreation economy can enhance job growth, state and local education, protection of wild lands, and improvements to local and state infrastructure.
Outdoor recreation assets can also incentivize larger outdoor companies to move to West Virginia, promoting high-paying jobs, competitive work environments, and additional revenues to communities in need. According to OIA’s 2017 report, spending in the snow sports and hunting sectors alone led to over 850,000 US jobs—more than Apple, Microsoft, and all mineral extraction industries combined.
The environmental aspect of the outdoor recreation economy has become more prominent as communities in West Virginia look to promote healthy activities while also protecting the land. But the uptick in visitors is causing concern about environmental degradation, prompting a rise in new organizations looking to share the load with existing organizations that have long been working to protect and conserve the state’s wild places.
In 2021, I received my master’s in public administration from West Virginia University. Historically, West Virginia has seen an exodus of intellectual capital leaving the state, and it has been rewarding to stay and utilize my education, experiences, and relationships to work directly on causes I feel so passionately about.
In October of 2022, I was hired as the first executive director of the fledgling Mountaineer Trail Network Recreation Authority (MTNRA), a multi-county organization focusing on identifying, enhancing, and promoting outdoor recreation opportunities as economic drivers for local communities. In many ways, this position feels like a culmination of the relationships and professional opportunities I’ve been so fortunate to build over the past two decades.
As executive director, I feel a heavy responsibility to administer our network and build the relationships needed to move the MTNRA—and with it, the outdoor recreation economy—forward in West Virginia. For our work to be sustainable, conversations with local communities will be essential.
We must address the need for infrastructure development within these outdoor recreation communities. In recent years, overcrowding and housing shortages—often unintended consequences of tourism-related growth—have arrived in areas like Fayetteville and Canaan Valley, leaving many locals and seasonal workers without a place to live. For many, the purchase of affordable housing options by out-of-state residents to use as second homes or additional revenue sources has left communities struggling to shore up housing inventory. We must find creative options, such as the construction of subsidized affordable housing or local short-term rental ordinances, that welcome new residents while encouraging locals to remain.
With the recent influx of visitors and residents, the need for improved roads, wastewater treatment facilities, broadband access, education funding, and emergency services can all be seen as pinchpoints. West Virginia will do well if its communities and organizations work together to solve these problems. It’s paramount to promote a culture of shared growth within these communities. We must understand that no one organization knows all the solutions and that collaboration offers the best chance of reaching intended outcomes. With this collaborative mindset, the MTNRA and organizations like it can help steward progress in West Virginia.
A Path Forward
2022 was the twenty-year mark of being a West Virginia resident, and I’m proud to say that I have now lived in West Virginia longer than I did in Massachusetts. After two decades of working in the outdoor recreation economy, I can say with certainty that it has provided me with more opportunities than I could ever have dreamed of. I want to expand these opportunities for every citizen that wants to stay in or move to West Virginia. And with every new business that opens and every new trail that is built, the opportunities for work and community expand.
We have already seen what is possible when businesses and people rally around outdoor recreation with places like Snowshoe in Pocahontas County, Canaan Valley in Tucker County, and Fayetteville in the New River Gorge region. These communities recognized their outdoor recreation assets and attracted people and resources to create opportunities for growth and quality of life for residents. The ability to improve and promote more of what this state has to offer is just around the corner, and we have never had more development organizations tasked with that challenge than we do at this moment.
But we must be thoughtful as we move into this next phase of economic development. Outdoor recreation includes a wide array of user groups sharing relatively small tracts of land. Relationships and common bonds must be created and reinforced between those groups to foster shared use of these common spaces. We would do well to acknowledge that outdoor recreation comes in many different forms.
As it often does, the arrival of an opportunity raises new questions. How will we work together to make sure that these resources are shared and that the goals of past and current community members are considered? How will we tackle the need for infrastructure development, affordable housing, and environmental stewardship? These issues need to be addressed to holistically improve our rural communities. West Virginia presented me with an opportunity, and my life has been forever changed by answering the call of this state’s outdoor recreation economy. My hope is that we can collaboratively move West Virginia forward by answering this new call together.
Andrew Walker is the executive director of the Mountaineer Trail Network Recreation Authority. He can often be found biking, fly fishing in a trout stream, or paddling on one of West Virginia’s pristine waterways.