Newcomb and colleague Karl Meyer conducted random surveys over the course of the 2012-13 winter season of resident and non-resident backcountry visitors who participated in the activities of backcountry skiing and snowboarding (also known as alpine touring or AT), cross-country skiing both on and off groomed trails, snowshoeing, walking/jogging on groomed backcountry trails, and over-snow biking. The survey asked for data about annual expenditures on goods and services related to these forms of backcountry recreation as well as the location and frequency of backcountry visits.
Topline findings include an estimated $12.5 million direct annual economic impact by nonresidents who participate in these activities while visiting the region and $6.5 million annual contribution from resident spending related to backcountry winter recreation. Newcomb estimates $3 million in annual wages to employees who work in jobs directly stemming from these forms of winter backcountry recreation and $1 million in tax revenues to state and local government. The geographic area of impact focused on the communities of Jackson, Driggs/Victor and West Yellowstone and includes Teton County in Wyoming, Teton, Bonneville, Fremont and Madison Counties in Idaho, and West Yellowstone, Montana.
“We know anecdotally that winter backcountry recreation is increasing throughout the study region,” said Newcomb who, in addition to experience in environmental economics and urban and rural planning, worked for 25 years as a backcountry ski guide and avalanche course instructor. “However, to date, there has been little information available about how these activities impact our economy.”
Newcomb added that the report takes a conservative approach both in its economic impact conclusions and in its estimate of total number of residents and nonresidents participating in backcountry winter recreation in the region. The report uses data from a combination of sources including National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, trail counts and concessionaire data to arrive at a population estimate of 7,419 residents and 41,336 nonresidents who participated in the above activities during the 2012-13 winter season.
“My intuition and my on-the-ground experience tell me the population numbers we arrived at are low,” said Newcomb, “and therefore, the economic impact is likely understated, but these are the best source numbers available so that’s what we went with.” Per person expenditure estimates are $803 spent annually by residents in-region and an additional $255 spent out-of-region on goods and services for backcountry winter recreation; and $273 per person per visit by nonresidents spent on backcountry winter recreation goods and services during their visit to the region.
The report incorporates data gathered in additional surveys: one of retailers in the area that sell gear, clothing and other goods and services related to backcountry recreation; and a second survey of organizations such as backcountry guide services and avalanche course providers, both for profit and nonprofit, that operate as authorized concessionaires on national forest or national park lands. This data provided information about employment and wages related to winter backcountry recreation and helped corroborate population estimates.
One surprise, according to Newcomb, is the significance of guided activity in the area. “While guided winter activity seems to have a relatively small footprint, our study found that the economic contribution is significant.” The study estimates that participants in guided activities and education programs spent 6,699 days in the backcountry and contributed $1.6 million in gross revenues and were responsible for $826,000 in wages.
The study also reinforced the quality of the winter backcountry opportunities in the region with 81 percent of nonresidents and 74 percent of residents who skied or snowboarded in the backcountry reporting they were “very satisfied” with their experience.
The report was commissioned by the Boise-based national nonprofit organization Winter Wildlands Alliance (WWA) and was funded through a grant from the LOR Foundation. “It’s a common refrain from land managers and decision makers that they need better and more economic data on our activities,” said WWA Executive Director Mark Menlove. “We chose to study the Teton-West Yellowstone area because it is renowned for its backcountry winter recreation, is well managed, and offers an excellent mix of recreational opportunities. This study verifies that backcountry recreation creates jobs and contributes significantly to the local economy. It’s hugely important for Winter Wildlands Alliance, both as a pilot project we hope to replicate in other regions and as a practical tool for land managers and planners in the region to use in resource allocation and management efforts.”
An executive summary and the full report, titled “Teton-West Yellowstone Backcountry Winter Recreation Economic Analysis,” are available at winterwildlands.org.