Michigan’s latest emphasis on the outdoor recreation industry serves as part of an economic development strategy that’s responding to the sector’s shifting demographics, natural resources officials say.
Traditionally, outdoor recreation in Michigan has been synonymous — and built around — hunting and fishing. But state officials see participants in these activities as an aging demographic, evidenced in declining revenue and number of licenses and permits issued for hunting and fishing.
“The demographics are driving so much. Traditional groups are super relevant, but it’s not where Millennials are going,” said Brad Garmon, who was appointed in September by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to lead the state’s Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry.
Over the past three years, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources issued studies on the downward participation trends in hunting and fishing going back to the late 1990s.
More recently, the number of people buying hunting and fishing licenses declined 3 percent from 2017-2018, and has continued to trend downward since 2014. Last year, the state issued hunting and fishing licenses to 55,375 fewer people than it did in 2014, according to the DNR.
Also last year, the state brought in $2 million less in revenue from licenses and permits than it did in 2015 after the state created a new hunting, fishing and off-road vehicle license structure.
While hunting and fishing remain large and crucial components of Michigan’s outdoor recreation industry, the Whitmer administration is seizing on the potential to showcase other activities that rely on the state’s manufacturing, tourism and supply chain sectors. Building those connections is part of a long-term plan to keep the industry relevant.
“The adventurers today are the advocates of tomorrow,” Garmon said. “Michigan can define itself as a recreational state.”
Growing the industry
While marketing and raising awareness is part of Michigan’s strategy, economic development is a core aspect of the new Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry.
On his first day on the job, Garmon said he presented to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which expressed an interest in partnering with the state to address a skilled trades shortage.
Garmon referred to himself as a “matchmaker” and “liaison” to connect companies with new opportunities in outdoor recreation. He’s posing questions about whether, for example, seat belt manufacturers for the automotive industry could make climbing harnesses. These are the types of questions Garmon will shop around to companies across the state.
“There is rich and fertile ground around those opportunities,” he said.
While that’s the general consensus, the state is also identifying and quantifying that potential.
“It’s going to be a heavy lift,” Garmon said.
According to the DNR, 63 percent of Michigan residents participate in outdoor recreation annually.
On Sept. 20, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis released a draft report on the state-by-state economic impact of the outdoor recreation industry that uses new “prototype statistics” in its methodology. The report shows outdoor recreation makes up 2 percent of Michigan’s gross domestic product, 2.8 percent of total employment in the state and produces $4.8 billion in wages and salaries. It reports nearly 127,000 jobs tied to the sector.
The Outdoor Industry Association also reports on the sector’s economic impact, but shows greater economic impact than the federal study. The association determined Michigan’s industry generates $26.6 billion in consumer spending annually and $7.5 billion in wages and salaries, contributing to 232,000 direct jobs.
While it uses a “pretty different” methodology than the federal report, the findings reflect similar trends, said David Weinstein, the association’s state and local policy director.
“The biggest level takeaway is that, once again, we’ve seen corroboration that this sector is growing faster than the overall economy writ large,” Weinstein said. “We find that to be really exciting and compelling. It’s opening a number of opportunities in states like Michigan.”
Garmon says while it’s not challenging to show outdoor recreation is a “huge sector of the economy,” it’s difficult when delving into the details. He cites companies like Detroit-area electric vehicle startup Rivian, which is “clearly in the auto sector” but its branding and products are “clearly in the outdoor space.”
For Michigan and other states, funding these efforts remains an open-ended question. The Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry was created within existing agency budgets, and will report annually to the state Legislature about its work.
Weinstein said finding dedicated funding for programs or projects — given the “notoriously difficult (federal government) as of late” — is a “hugely important topic right now.”
State approaches vary and include grant and incentive programs or taxes on certain outdoor-related items. Garmon said Michigan has been slowly moving away from dedicated funding to a more “pay to play model,” but he agrees sources of ongoing funding remain uncertain.
On Sept. 12, Whitmer was in Grand Rapids to announce plans for Michigan to join the Confluence of States, an eight-state coalition with the shared goal to promote and advocate for the outdoor recreation industry. Creating a state outdoor recreation office is a requirement for joining the confluence.
“Michigan is an absolutely no-brainer when it comes to this conversation,” Weinstein said. “The recreational amenities — either on land or water — are significant and much coveted, I would argue.”
Weinstein said joining the coalition brings new states into a “network of folks who have been doing this back to 2013. The directors themselves are this closely knit group of folks who talk through all the issues each state is dealing with and can learn from one another about best practices.”
These state offices then “support down, coordinate across and advocate up” to connect with private companies and collaborate among state agencies, Weinstein said.
“There’s a big learning curve, this is all so new,” he said. “Each state has political realities and policy needs.”
Signed in 2018, the Confluence Accords grew out of a dispute in Utah between outdoor recreation supporters and state and federal policies involving land use. Critics said state and federal lawmakers were being too extraction-industry-friendly, and outdoor recreation organizers threatened to move a twice-annual conference out of Salt Lake City.
The goal was to build organized advocacy around outdoor recreation that could compete with extraction industry groups. Although borne from a political dispute, advocates say the outdoor recreation industry is largely bipartisan.
“One of the key things I’ve learned early is those sectors are highly important,” Garmon said of sectors like mining and forestry. “There’s enough land to go around. What hasn’t been organized is this sector. We’re trying to put outdoor recreation on that same playing field, and build recreation into the long-term vision of the state.”
Whitmer’s move puts Michigan in the company of states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Vermont, all widely known for their outdoor recreation industries.
Michigan comes at it from a different angle, however. Advocates say the Great Lakes play a central role here, and outdoor opportunities are geared more to a general audience.
“The Great Lakes are something people have not given enough credit to in recent years,” said Karen Strough, co-owner with her husband of Donnelly-Strough Co., a Harbor Springs-based outdoor gear wholesaler.
Strough said Michigan is by far the largest source of the company’s sales in the region because of its proximity to the Great Lakes and its outdoor amenities. She has spent the past few decades as an outdoor gear sales representative, and says ongoing challenges include getting young people and women involved.
But the state’s efforts should help address what appears to be growing interest, she said.
“It’s an awesome thing to bring attention to this opportunity this industry has presented to Michigan,” she said. “I think there’s a need to create awareness of the scope and size of the business under that umbrella. It’s a huge money-maker for the state of Michigan.”