Opinion

Understanding Outdoor Recreation’s Important Role in the Infrastructure Debate

When someone mentions infrastructure, the first images that immediately come to mind are typically roads and bridges. However, for many people across the country, infrastructure is much more than that – especially for our nation’s recreational boaters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts.

Outdoor recreation activities include fishing, boating, hiking and more. Partaking and enjoying each activity requires reliable access to public lands and waters – otherwise referred to as blue-green infrastructure. But contrary to what you may think, not only are these activities fun pastimes, they are also major contributors to the American economy.

Each year, recreational boating generates more than $170 billion in economic activity, supporting more than 35,000 businesses and 691,000 U.S. jobs. And these contributions don’t stop there. Overall, the outdoor recreation economy supports 4.5 million U.S. jobs and contributes $734 billion to gross economic output, or nearly 2.2 percent of U.S. GDP.

Adequate infrastructure is key to this economic activity. But with the American Society of Civil Engineers rating our infrastructure – including parks, ports and waterways – in poor condition, it’s clear that robust modernization projects are immediately needed to keep this economic engine churning.

Fortunately, there has been significant movement in Congress on both sides of the aisle toward developing infrastructure legislation. As lawmakers consider measures that will revive our nation’s infrastructure, they must address blue-green infrastructure needs by incorporating a “Recreation Title” in any comprehensive package.

First and foremost, a Recreation Title should dedicate funding for the construction and maintenance of boat ramps and waterways to improve access for boaters and anglers. Additionally, funding for navigation and dredging projects in small harbors must receive appropriate prioritization. These harbors are critical to countless local and coastal communities where recreational boating is the main economic driver. Plus, a recent report found that Michigan’s recreational harbors produce nearly four times more economic impact than commercial harbors, shedding any doubt that the current evaluation scheme needs reforming.

Additionally, expanding broadband access in federally managed lands and waters is a common-sense proposal that should be incorporated in an infrastructure package. Access to broadband is not just about trolling websites and uploading selfies: It enables boaters to safely navigate our nation’s waterways and remain up to date on changing weather conditions.

While many agree that rebuilding and maintaining our infrastructure is critical to the health of our economy, there is less consensus on how to fund these initiatives.

Recently, a misguided proposal was sent to Congress opposing a gas tax increase and calling for stripping Highway Trust Fund money from certain non-road projects. These are counterproductive ideas that ignore two important realities: gas tax receipts have not kept pace with inflation, and some non-road programs funded through the Highway Trust Fund – such as the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, created at the behest of the recreational boating and fishing community – receive funding directly from its beneficiaries. In other words, the taxes anglers and boaters pay when they fill up their boats at local gas stations go directly to the SFRBTF.  The Highway Trust Fund is a mere vessel by which the funds are delivered.

The SFRBTF is a significant funding source for conservation and recreation infrastructure projects that allow Americans to responsibly enjoy the outdoors in every state. Diverting these funds is akin to robbing Peter to pay Paul, and would exacerbate the current recreation infrastructure deficiencies, jeopardize our environment and stifle the entire outdoor recreation economy.

Calls for allocating Highway Trust Fund revenue generated by non-road activities to over-the-road projects demonstrate a clear lack of understanding about our nation’s collective infrastructure system and defy the longstanding user pay, public benefit principle.

Federal investments in blue-green infrastructure is not only good for the outdoor recreation industry, they also save the government money in the long run. A recent study confirmed that for every dollar the federal government invests in the National Park Service, $10 is returned to the U.S. economy, directly benefiting our nation’s rural areas and gateway communities.

It’s a fact that our economy relies on much more than just roads and bridges. The infrastructure that powers outdoor recreation serves as a pillar for the broader economy. I urge Congress and the administration to continue the bipartisan effort toward an infrastructure package that includes a robust Recreation Title and delivers sensible funding mechanisms.

 

Thom Dammrich is president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the leading trade organization for the North American recreational boating industry.

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