By Justin Bezold, Trout Unlimited-Washington Water Project
A recent study commissioned by the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office highlights the importance of the natural environment to Washington’s economy. The “Economic Analysis of Outdoor Recreation in Washington State,” prepared by Earth Economics, gives readers a glimpse into the habits of outdoor enthusiasts in Washington. On average, Washingtonians spend 56 days/year playing outside. After adding non-residents, the report estimates 446 million participant days generate $21.6 billion in revenue, with the highest expenditures associated with public waters. In total, outdoor recreation supports almost 200,000 jobs in Washington—more than either the information technology or aerospace sectors—neither of which have a strong presence in the Yakima Basin.
More importantly, the study demonstrates the influence of healthy ecosystems on local economies. The Yakima River Basin is an area that experiences disproportionate public use and has a large impact on the state’s economy. The report provides strong economic arguments supporting the implementation of the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resources Management Plan (“YBIP”)—the multi-year, collaborative effort designed to address water concerns in the face of climate change in the Yakima River Basin. Properly implemented, the YBIP will provide a foundation for restoring and maintaining the natural environment and maintaining a viable agricultural economy.
With a regional economy based on natural resources, recreation is vital to the economic stability and viability of Yakima Basin counties. Compared to statewide averages, the Basin experiences a high number of visitors from other areas. At less than 60 miles from downtown Seattle and with over 1.7 million acres of public lands available, the Yakima Basin is ideally situated for urban residents looking for a weekend escape. The study also suggests that Kittitas County receives the biggest benefit, as it gets over four times as many visitor days as there are county residents.
In addition to public lands, the Yakima Basin also draws visitors with the Yakima River. The report points out that generally, recreation involving public waters results in high expenditures. Though the study does not split spending by water body, the Yakima River is Washington’s only blue ribbon trout stream. As such, the river is a destination for both anglers seeking high quality fishing and boaters and swimmers in a unique environment.
Of even greater importance to the Yakima Basin, the study also examines the value of ecosystem services. Defined as “the benefits people derive from nature, free of charge [,] . . . such as breathable air, drinkable water, flood risk reduction, waste treatment, and stable atmospheric conditions,” ecosystem services are paramount to modern life. Though the report focuses on recreation as a type of ecosystem service, additional services of wildlife habitat and water quality—both critical elements of the YBIP—are included in the valuation. The total value of the ecosystem services that support recreation in Washington range from $115 to $216 billion annually. This means that Washingtonians derive great economic value from merely having high-quality natural areas.
The report does split out the value that rivers and lakes provide, which is between $600 million and $1.4 billion. This is a high relative value given that rivers and lakes occupy a sliver of the landscape. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Yakima River Basin, where the headwaters are seemingly soaked (snow and rain in the Cascade Mountains) but the lower basin is a desert landscape composed of a shrub-steppe ecosystem. Without the life-giving waters of the Yakima River, the thriving agricultural economy of the basin would look drastically different.
Overall, this study provides yet another tool for us to demonstrate the importance of Washington’s natural resources. The Yakima River Basin is a perfect example. From snow-capped mountains with glaciers, to desert uplands and canyons, the Yakima River Basin is truly an exceptional place that is a vital part of Washington’s economy. Properly implementing the YBIP will help protect the opportunities for outdoor recreation, but more importantly, the YBIP can increase the ecosystem services provided by the Basin and protect a regional economy. Protecting the Yakima River should be a high priority for any Washington resident. Not just to have a place to play, but to also ensure clean air and water with a vibrant economy for years to come.