Monday, March 14, 2016

The Economy of Rock and Dirt

This past Saturday Dr. James Maples and Brian Clark of Eastern Kentucky University presented the results of the recent Economic Impact of Rock Climbing in the Red River Gorge, KY (study) to a small crowd at Natural Bridge State Resort Park in Slade, Kentucky.  In the crowd were tourism and economic development folks from Lee and Clark Counties.  The Powell County Judge-Executive sent a representative.  The new District Ranger for the Cumberland Ranger District of the Daniel Boone National Forest was there.  There were local landowners who are friendly to climbers present.  And of course there were quite a few climbers and climber/advocates. 
While I am employed by the Bluegrass Area Development District I was there for my personal interests as a long time climber, general Gorge-goer, and as a mountain bike advocate.  And in this article when I mention “climbers” outside the context of the study I also imply a wide range of outdoor recreationalists such as hikers, backpackers, boaters, and cyclists.   
Me, leading the first pitch of Good Tang, Red River Gorge, 2003
The six county study region includes Powell, Estill, Lee, Menifee, Wolfe, and Owsley Counties.  These six counties are within the EKU service region as well and all are Appalachian Regional Commission counties.   
The quick and dirty is that climbers spend a conservatively estimated $3.6 million in the regional economy each year.  They generate an estimated $2.7 million in total revenues for local business owners and support an estimated 39 full-time jobs in a region with high poverty rates.
The study also showed that climbers are generally highly educated which counters many local stereotypes of climber who historically have been seen as “dirtbags.”  Rightfully so, some of these rocket scientists (no really!) show up at the Stanton Kroger looking more like homeless people than professionals.  But the locals (present company included) even show up at Kroger looking the part themselves. 
I'm sure I beelined straight for DQ in Stanton after summiting Foxfire in 1994
At least one local outdoor business owner thinks the estimates are high.  He’s skeptical climbers put that much money into the economy.  I don’t disagree with him that the impact is small, but I think the numbers are probably valid, it’s just that $3.6 million sounds like a lot of money it’s really not that much spread out over a six county area in the course of a year.  That’s only $600,000 per county annually.  Compare that to other tourist groups or to other local industries and the amount really isn’t as impactive as it sounds at the outset.
Regardless, without rock climbing there would be significantly less value in the economy.  What is not reflected in the study are the many people (climbers or not) who have relocated to the area either part or full time, bought property, and/or built homes.  Infrastructure improvements in the form of climbing route development, trail construction, and other indirect recreational amenities added through volunteer effort has not been shown in the study either.  These numbers are quantifiable and should be included in future studies.  But again, even with greater numbers rock climbing is not going to show up as being the backbone of the local economy.  Though it could.
There is great potential for an economic boom if only the Eastern Kentucky communities that are adjacent to the Red River Gorge would capitalize on what Dr. Maples calls a “renewable resource.”  He reiterated that as long as we have access to crags climbers will be coming to the area.  He is 100% correct.  If the Red River Gorge communities catered more to rock climbers more instead of pretending like they don’t exist the climbers could make the area rich.
If the Red River Gorge community invested in outdoor related services and retailers there is no doubt that the visitors to the area would support those businesses.  The caveat is that those businesses would need to cater to the wants and needs of that outdoor crowd and not to the perceived wants and needs assumed by local entrepreneurs.  A solid market survey of Gorge users is needed and the results of such a study should guide future development and marketing for tourism and general land use in the area. 
My passion is mountain biking.  I’ve been a rock climber for over twenty years and once ran a modestly successful climbing guide service in Slade.  But in recent years I have come to love mountain biking and as my joints age find that it better suits my health needs than rock climbing. 
Oddly enough, the Red River Gorge area is not currently amenable to mountain biking.  There is one legal mountain bike trail in the Daniel Boone National Forest, and while there are ongoing efforts to improve that trail it is currently not enjoyable for the average mountain biker and is definitely not suitable for beginners. 
With possibilities like this why isn't the RRG a mountain biking destination?
Mountain bikers have no footprint in the area.  However, our terrain and soils are highly suitable for mountain bike trails.  While Lexington area mountain bikers moan and cry throughout the winter about muddy trails our hiking trails remain suitable (though not legal) for mountain biking.  The sandy soils drain quickly and are rideable for most of the winter allowing for a long active season.
Cycling in general, and more specifically mountain biking, are great winter activities because riding keeps your heartrate and core temperature higher than other activities.  While other activities tend to fall off in the colder months many mountain bikers ride year round.
According to a 2014 study by Nicholas Meltzer of the University of Oregon mountain biking shows that mountain biking contributes $2.3 to $4.9 million to the economy of Oakridge, Oregon (which is a rural community of only 3,200) which is 5% of the total local economy.
By building trails for another user group in the area we could easily double the economic impact of outdoor tourism in the Red River Gorge region and potentially grow the impact from users that already visit the area.  Many times I see cars in Slade with nice mountain bikes on their roof or rear racks.  I know those visitors probably leave disappointed having not been able to find good places to ride.  On their next trip will they go someplace else where they can enjoy their mountain bikes and do other things like hike and camp?
Trails can be built on junk land.  They can be placed in narrow corridors like utility easements and along common property boundaries.  They are compatible with most other uses as long as they are well designed and laid out.  Typically trails use land where they are not competing with other uses.  This means we can have trails anywhere and everywhere!

It's just that easy!
Rock climbing is limited to where suitable layers of exposed rock of at least a modest geologic quality occur.  There needs to be adequate access, and some enterprising climbers need to stumble onto the area in order to develop climbable routes.  The incredible sandstone of the Red River Gorge cannot be transferred to other counties nor can it be improved if the rock quality is poor.
Conversely, trails can be built in any part of the state.  And poor trails can be improved and made enjoyable and sustainable with easily adopted modern trail standards.  Compared to other recreational amenities trails are relatively cheap to build and maintain and can often be kept up simply with dedicated volunteers who take it upon themselves to keep the trails in good shape.
I’m continually disappointed by our state and region’s focus on increasing motorized recreation and trails for off-road vehicles.  Those uses are dependent upon cheap and abundant oil resulting low oil prices.  While high fuel costs affect all tourism, it doubly affects motorized uses because not only is the travel to recreational destination expensive, but the costs of participating in the activity also increase as fuel costs rise, whereas non-motorized recreational costs rise only negligibly and much slower.
And motorized recreational opportunities do not promote good health nor help mitigate our state’s obesity epidemic.  And in poor and unhealthy communities developing motorized off-road recreation can price out those who cannot afford the expensive toys needed to use the trails.  Therefore focusing on those activities doesn’t directly help the locals, nor does it provide long term resilience and sustainability when fuel costs become unstable. 
Non-motorized recreation is easier on the environment, the ears of local residents, and on the pocketbooks of local governments than motorized uses.   
In closing, I understand that there are some cultural divides between the local communities and those that visit Eastern Kentucky for recreation.  This is true even amongst the motorized recreationalists.  However, I firmly believe that this need not be the case, and that we can leverage our cultural assets, our proximity to valuable natural resources, and our proximity to the renewable resources of tourist dollars to change our economic landscape in the short term.

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