New legislation expected to further highlight Chattanooga's outdoor industry

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / Andrea Jolly and Mitchell Blevins paddle downstream on Chickamauga Creek from Greenway Farms on Aug. 9.
photo Staff Photo by Dan Henry / Randy Whorton, with the Wild Trails organization, runs at Stringer's Ridge on June 30, 2014.

Local outdoor recreation advocates hope legislation approved by Congress last week will bring new attention and investment to the outdoors nationally and also to the Scenic City.

The Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act of 2016 passed the Senate unanimously and landed on President Barack Obama's desk Thursday.

The bill, commonly referred to as the Rec Act, requires the federal government to assess the nation's outdoor recreation impact and its effect on the overall U.S. economy.

The bill directs the Commerce, Agriculture and Interior departments to work through the Bureau of Economic Analysis to conduct the analysis. The resulting report is due to be handed to several congressional committees within two years.

The Outdoor Industry Association calls the Rec Act "breakthrough legislation" that could result in positive policy trends for the outdoors.

The OIA has estimated outdoor recreation to be a $646 billion industry. Passage of the Rec Act ensures there will be government-sanctioned statistical reports on the industry on a par with others tracked by the Department of Commerce.

"It really is that kind of third-party credibility and official stance that is so important about this legislation," said Mark McKnight, co-founder of Chattanooga-based outdoors website RootsRated.

Chattanooga passed $1 billion in tourism for the first time in 2015, in part because of its growing reputation as an outdoor destination. For the second time the city was voted Outside Magazine's "Best Town Ever" in 2015 and continues to attract high-profile endurance sports competitions like the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championships.

Bridgett Massengill, executive director of the Thrive 2055 regional growth initiative, said in a statement that outdoor recreation is a major economic driver locally, and for areas in the region that rely on their natural resources to attract tourists.

"For elected officials often facing multimillion-dollar budget needs, it's difficult to quantify the importance of a tiny, endangered freshwater fish, wildflower, hillside or mountaintop," she said. "But the people who engage with the outdoors spend real dollars and directly contribute to the local economy."

Collecting data on a larger scale about the outdoor recreation economy will better communicate the relevance of the outdoors to public decision makers and help quantify the importance of preserving the region's natural resources, she said.

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga assistant professor Drew Bailey wrote a report published this year estimating conservatively that rock climbing brought an impact of $7 million to Hamilton County in 2015.

National numbers produced because of the Rec Act legitimize the outdoor industry on a larger scale, Bailey said. But, he added, they may be too abstract to apply locally, where he believes more investment is still needed to capitalize on the area's outdoor resources.

"The hope is that we're putting enough objective data out there," Bailey said, "so that at some point people will realize this is having a large enough impact that it should be supported."

McKnight, who published an article on RootsRated in September in support of the Rec Act, also said Southeast Tennessee could further capitalize on its outdoor offerings.

"It's still kind of a hidden secret to some degree that there's such great paddling here, and the extensive network of trails that we love," he said. "We certainly are on the map nationally for climbing, but I still don't think there's as much as there could be."

For the analysis, the U.S. commerce secretary may consider employment, sales, tourism and other components of the country's outdoor recreation economy, according to the bill.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who once chaired the President's Commission on American Outdoors, grew up hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains. In a statement, he praised Tennessee's "proud tradition" of protecting lands and heritage while increasing tourism and bringing in money from around the world.

"I look forward to the Commerce Department's report on the economic benefits of the Great American Outdoors," Alexander said.

Contact staff writer David Cobb at or 423-757-6249.