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New Studies Reveal Vast Economic, Recreational Values of Two North Carolina National Forests

As the Forest Service drafts new plans that will guide management of the million-plus acre Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests in western North Carolina, a series of studies demonstrates a generational chance to protect their extensive economic and recreational values.

Human-powered outdoor recreation is a major economic engine for Western North Carolina. That’s the conclusion of a new series of studies commissioned by the Outdoor Alliance and conducted by researchers from Eastern Kentucky University (EKU). The report, which examines the economic impact of paddling, climbing, and mountain biking in the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, shows that outdoor recreation generates $115 million annually for surrounding communities in Western North Carolina, while supporting more than 1,000 full-time jobs.

“More people visit the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests each year than Yellowstone — people who bike, paddle, raft, hike, climb, and otherwise enjoy these treasured public lands,” said Adam Cramer, Executive Director of Outdoor Alliance. “These national forests provide adventures that feed the souls of millions of visitors. Collectively these visitors spend a ton of money and make these cherished national forests economic powerhouses that generate jobs and income throughout the region.”

The studies highlight just how vital outdoor recreation is to this region in the heart of the Southern Appalachians, and to the 1 million acres spanned by the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests (NPNF), and come as the Forest Service update a plan that will guide management of these forests for the next 15 to 20 years. The Outdoor Alliance-commissioned studies illustrate why human-powered recreation deserves to be a top priority for the U.S. Forest Service as it completes this new plan in the coming months.

The report’s authors found that paddlers, climbers, and mountain bikers who visit the Nantahala-Pisgah’s rivers, crags, and trails generate more than $83 million in economic impact annually. But even this is only part of the story. The researchers also identified nearly $32 million in annual spending by local residents on human-powered outdoor recreation in the two national forests. This combined economic activity helps support more than 1,000 local jobs — yielding almost $14 million in annual income — above and beyond visitor and resident spending. It also makes Western North Carolina a magnet for outdoor gear manufacturing companies, 27 of whom call the region home.

“When our company chose to set up shop in Western North Carolina, the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forests had everything to do with that decision,” said Goose Kearse, Owner of Misty Mountain Threadworks. “The forests’ trails, climbing areas, and rivers draw visitors to this beautiful corner of North Carolina year-round, and they also draw talented, mission-driven people to live here — people we are proud to employ and who contribute daily to the success of our business.”

But it’s not just those employed in the outdoor industry who choose to live in Western North Carolina for its access to such a wide array of outdoor activities. According to the studies’ findings, the region’s proximity to unparalleled outdoor recreation attracts a diverse cross section of residents working in fields from healthcare to hi-tech. In fact, fully 95 percent of survey respondents cite access to outdoor recreation as a key reason for living here.

“Not every part of the country is fortunate enough to boast amazing climbing, world-class whitewater, and top-notch trails, but here in Western North Carolina, we are that lucky,” said Kevin Colburn, the National Stewardship Director of American Whitewater. “What these new studies tell us is that our region’s economic health depends on safeguarding these amazing public resources for the long-term, while ensuring their sustainable enjoyment by residents and visitors alike. As federal officials work to complete their management plan for the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, we need to make sure outdoor recreation remains a key priority.”

The studies, led by Dr. James Maples and Dr. Michael Bradley of EKU, focus on outdoor recreation as it applies to the NPNF in three broad categories – rock climbing, paddling and mountain biking.

The researchers found that of three climbing regions surveyed, rock climbers spend an estimated $13.9 million per year in and around NPNF, and that rock climber tourism supports the presence of 170 full-time jobs and $4 million in job income. They also determined that Western North Carolina residents spend an additional $12.9 million per year as a result of climbing in the NPNF.

With regard to mountain biking, the studies found that mountain bikers visit the NPNF an estimated 435,000 times per year, spending around $30.2 million per year in and around the NPNF. Mountain biker tourism supports some 366 full-time jobs and $9 million in job income, while Western North Carolina residents spend an additional $18 million as a result of mountain biking in the NPNF.

“The Pisgah-Nantahala has welcomed mountain bikers for over 25 years and in that time, the U.S. Forest Service has developed a close partnership with IMBA and SORBA volunteers to create one of the most attractive and extensive mountain biking destinations in the country. The report shows how the region is benefiting from these efforts,” said Tom Sauret, Executive Director of Southern Off-Road Bicycling Association and Southeast Regional Director of International Mountain Bicycling Association.

And when it comes to paddling, the studies concluded that visiting non-commercial paddlers spend an estimated $3.2 million across seven rivers, while commercial paddlers account for an estimated $36 million annually across three rivers. They found that non-commercial paddling tourism supports 35 full-time jobs and $827,000 in job income whereas commercial paddling supports over 400 full-time jobs and $10 million in job income.

“These studies show that the outdoor recreation opportunities provided by the Nantahala-Pisgah are a truly precious resource — one that needs and deserves protection and sustainable stewardship,” said Zachary Lesch-Huie, Southeast Regional Director of Access Fund. “The Forest Service’s upcoming plan should safeguard and promote the value of outdoor recreation by ensuring these public land gems will continue to offer world-class climbing, paddling, hiking, and biking for generations to come.”

Download full reports here: http://www.outdooralliance.org/nantahalapisgah-economic-reports


Outdoor Alliance is a nonprofit coalition of organizations that include American Whitewater, American Canoe Association, Access Fund, International Mountain Bicycling Association, Winter Wildlands Alliance, The Mountaineers, American Alpine Club, and the Mazamas. Outdoor Alliance unites backcountry skiers, hikers, paddlers, mountain bikers, boaters, and climbers who share a commitment to protecting public lands. For more information, visit outdooralliance.org.