Businesses Push Conservation

Recreational outdoor industry pours resources into public land preservation at a time when federal funding for conservation areas has dwindled

AS federal funding for parks and recreation has failed to keep up with burgeoning numbers of outdoor enthusiasts, the outdoor industry is looking for new ways to preserve places for fun, relaxation, and adventure.

More than 200 business, government, and nonprofit leaders met for a national outdoor recreation ``summit' in Washington last week to discuss funding and maintenance of public lands.

Use of public lands for outdoor recreation is growing more popular than ever:

* Nearly 90 percent of Americans enjoy some form of outdoor recreation, from bird watching to day hiking to kayaking.

* In the last 10 years, visits to national parks have increased by 100 million people to 268 million last year.

* The number of day hikers is projected to increase by 193 percent in the next 50 years; backpackers are expected to grow by 155 percent.

* Recreation is a big business in the US. Human-powered recreation contributes an estimated $132 billion to the United States economy.

Middle-aged Americans who were avid hikers in the 1970s are ``rediscovering'' the outdoors, says Bruce Ward, president of the American Hiking Society. In addition, a surge of younger participants is heading for the woods and waters, too: When Seventeen magazine for teenage girls recently ran a series of hiking tips and listed the American Hiking Society as a resource for trail information, the conservation group ``received hundreds of cards and letters,'' Mr. Ward says.

As participation has ballooned, federal funding for parks and recreation has shrunk by one-third during the 1980s. The impact of millions of Americans hitting the trails and streams is becoming more apparent, says Frank Snell, chief of recreation and wilderness at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the Department of the Interior. National parks are often overused while other conservation areas - such as national forests and wildernesses - are some how forgotten.

``The severity, of course, varies,'' he says, ``but the problem is widespread .... There is plenty of space out there. It's a matter of spreading the use to other areas,'' Mr. Snell says. Some public lands that are not national parks - like King Range National Conservation Area on the northern coast of California - are underpublicized and underdeveloped, but available for use.

David Secunda, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America - an association of businesses and nonprofit organizations that organized the summit - says that he had to stop rock climbing at one of his favorite spots when the boulders became too slick from spray-painted graffiti. In the 18 years he has climbed, Mr. Secunda says he watched graffiti and other signs of overuse and abuse creep from suburban areas - like the boulders near Ventura, Calif. - to remote wilderness.

There is a ``real sense of desperation'' among enthusiasts about the state of trails, Ward says. Many trails on maps simply do not exist because of lack of maintenance; others suffer from overuse by mountain bikes and horses.

As a result, businesses, such as those specializing in outdoor sports equipment and recreational gear, are beginning to take a bigger role in the management and preservation of these lands, Snell says.

``They recognize that for a number of reasons ... that the areas we have may become unavailable'' for recreation, he says. ``I think it's vital that these businesses get involved.''

Indeed, businesses and environmental groups can pour in more resources for public land management compared to federal agencies with dwindling funds.

``There's a certain amount of enlightened self-interest'' in ensuring public lands for recreation, says Mike Collins, a spokesman for Kent, Wash.-based Recreational Equipment Inc., a manufacturer of sporting equipment. Coming together as an industry to meet with government representatives from the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service has given a unified voice to this ``young and growing industry,'' Mr. Collins says, stressing its interest in public land policy.

The problem is not the number of people who participate in outdoor recreation, but ``overconcentration,'' Secunda says, and lack of education on how to minimize impact on the land. Advertising and retailers are the ``prime opportunity'' to educate consumers about mitigating their impact on recreation areas, he adds.

For example, business leaders in the outdoor recreational industry are considering creating pamphlets and distributing information in their stores about a ``Leave No Trace'' conservation program that encourages outdoor enthusiasts to minimize waste.

Companies also can have a positive influence in encouraging consumers to become volunteers, such as helping maintain a trail, Ward says. ``People get a strong sense of satisfaction from giving something back.'' And from a business perspective, business activism ``builds goodwill and publicity,'' he adds.

Enjoyment of the outdoors is perhaps the ``single most unifying theme'' for Americans, says Dave Pompel, senior director of Reebok Outdoor, a division of the clothing and footwear manufacturer. ``It's no longer a niche business,'' he adds.

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