Revitalization through recreation
Rural Washington has an economic problem. So many towns here were built on the back of the tremendous logging boom that fueled rapid economic growth throughout the region. That boom ended abruptly when the last of the big trees were cut and we settled into a decades long hum-drum harvest cycle that only delivers a marginal trickle of revenue into the pockets of rural communities. For too long we have lived in the vain hope that the big timber bucks might flow once more, and this has led to stagnation and decline.
The solution to our economic woes has been unexpectedly demonstrated to us in the form of one of the side effects of the current pandemic. More Americans than ever before are flocking to State and National Parks throughout the Pacific Northwest – more than our existing public lands can handle. All those adventure seekers represent a gold mine equal to that of our vanished ancient forests, we just need to find a way to bring them and their wallets to our towns
According to https://outdoorindustry.org/, outdoor recreation was one of the largest economic factors in the nation, even before the pandemic struck and brought with it a surge in interest in getting out into nature. Nationally, outdoor recreation generates 887 billion dollars in consumer spending annually, supports 7.6 million jobs directly, and generates $59.2 billion dollars in state and local tax revenue. What makes those numbers even more significant is that all that money and all those jobs do not require that any physical resources be expended. It is renewable, sustainable, and dependable money that can lift communities up indefinitely if they know how to take advantage of it. How do we here in Southwest Washington claim our share of this vast economic resource?
To answer that question, we need only look to communities that have successfully built strong economies based on tourism. So many of them rose from humble boom towns such as our own to destinations of international fame. What do Leavenworth, Sun Valley, Vail, Breckenridge, Flagstaff, Bend, and Port Townsend have in common? Close proximity to protected natural areas.
Here in Southwest Washington, there are indeed some amazing natural places to explore, such as Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens, but there’s a problem – they’re too far away. In any of the aforementioned towns and cities all one must do is walk a few blocks to be immersed in expansive park land and have access to a lifetime’s worth of adventure. Here in Southwest Washington, most towns lie many miles from anything of interest.
We need to give people a reason to stay in Chehalis or Centralia, in Adna or in Morton, in Onalaska or in Toledo, in Toutle or in Woodland, or in any of the towns of the 20th district and of our rural neighbors throughout the hills and valleys here on the west side of the Cascades. We just need to re-examine what makes those hills and valleys valuable. We need to see the forest for more than just the trees.
Examine now the timberland that surrounds us. How much money from the logging of these forests actually reaches our pockets and community coffers? The corporations only pass on a pittance of their revenue in the form of meager wages paid for dangerous and difficult work. The logs are shipped overseas to be processed. Even if all the money stayed within our communities, we would still struggle economically, as in their current state our forests are just not capable of producing the timber revenue our communities need to sustain themselves economically, and there is no room for growth.
Now imagine an alternative, where instead of merely providing lumber, our forests provided a diverse range of recreation. What if in every town a visitor or resident could walk to the edge of town and beyond into a wilderness full of opportunity for adventure. Imagine all those hikers, tired of the crowds that swarm the slopes of Rainier or the ridges and valleys of the Olympics, discovering instead the Willapa Hills west of Chehalis, or the many small mountain ranges that make up the Cascade foothills. Imagine all these visitors staying and eating and spending in our communities. This economic revolution is within our grasp. We must only commit to making it a reality to realize a brighter future for Southwest Washington.
I know that the initial costs pose a daunting obstacle, and that economic prosperity will not be the instantaneous result. This undertaking will take decades to realize. We must first invest in large parks adjacent to our communities, and begin restoration work to make them worth visiting. This undertaking will employ those currently working in the logging industry, and many more besides.
In creating these new parks, we can build them to offer hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding without conflicts between users by designing miles upon miles of different trails. We could also take inspiration from the Appalachians in our backcountry accommodations, with huts and shelters provided in addition to campsites.
These new parks would spark a revitalization in each and every community throughout our region. Lodging, eateries, guide services, and businesses of all kinds would reclaim empty storefronts and sparse main streets. If well managed, this restoration and reorganization of our communities would create towns that people would want to visit. The revenue from these parks would remain in local communities., paying back the initial investment and more.
It’s time to start planning for the future. The key to our economic success lies in the recreation industry, and I intend to see a revitalized Southwest Washington become the envy of the nation.