National Outdoor Recreation Assessments

By Betz, Carter J. | Parks & Recreation, January 1999 | Go to article overview

National Outdoor Recreation Assessments


Betz, Carter J., Parks & Recreation


National assessments of outdoor recreation are a relatively new phenomenon in the United States, at least when compared to our country's history. The first systematic national examination of outdoor recreation -- the current situation, resources, demands, and future prospects -- did not occur until the late 1950s. The Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) was established in 1958 in response to a variety of outdoor recreation problems and concerns that had mushroomed during the postwar years. National recreation assessments have continued, though sporadically and never again on such a grand scale, since the ORRRC released its 1962 report "Outdoor Recreation For America."

This edition of "Research Update" is a bit different from the usual column, which reviews current research by a number of scientists and field academics. In this case, the current research consists of the latest national assessment published in a single volume, Outdoor Recreation in American Life: A National Assessment of Demand and Supply Trends (Cordell, 1999). The 1998 national outdoor recreation assessment was conducted by U.S. Forest Service scientists at the Southern Research Station along with many cooperators and contributors. Before examining the 1998 national assessment and its findings, it is useful to trace the history and evolution of national recreation assessments in the United States.

Through the years, outdoor recreation has existed in various forms, but it was not until the economic boom years following World War II that it truly became a social phenomenon that demanded government attention. Marion Clawson, an early and significant leader in developing scientific analyses of outdoor recreation, frequently noted four "fueling factors" that drove outdoor recreation demand to unprecedented levels in the postwar years (Clawson & Harrington, 1991). These were rapid increases in population, per capita real incomes, leisure time, and mobility. Development of the interstate highway system and lower transportation costs for the average American were especially important factors. Later, advances in recreation technology further accelerated demand. It is no coincidence that the emergence of the ORRRC coincided with the development of formal economic analyses of outdoor recreation. The ORRRC was commissioned to answer basic questions about outdoor recreation in the United States. What are the wants and needs, now and in the future? What recreation resources are available to fill these needs? What policies and programs should be recommended to ensure that present and future needs are met?

Among the ORRRC's greatest accomplishments was the tremendous heightening of public awareness and concern about outdoor recreation. It was also the first official acknowledgment that outdoor recreation was a legitimate concern of the federal government. The ORRRC report led directly to the creation of both the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) in 1965 and the now-defunct Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (BOR). The ORRRC also heavily influenced other great conservation legislation of the 1960s including the Wilderness Act (1964) and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968). Excellent reviews of the ORRRC and that critical period in outdoor recreation history are found in Douglass (in press) and Zinser (1995).

The Nationwide Plan

The Outdoor Recreation Act of 1963, which established the BOR, also authorized the preparation of a "comprehensive nationwide outdoor recreation plan" to study the current and future needs and demands of the public for outdoor recreation. In effect, the nationwide plan constituted a national recreation policy. Revised plans were to be submitted at five-year intervals. The first plan, The Recreation Imperative, was completed in 1970 but never released because it was considered too controversial by the Nixon administration. The plan was later published in draft form by the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. …

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