How recreation is driving the economy of northern Michigan

The year 2020 has been a pivotal year for outdoor recreation. Across the country, people have turned to the woods and waters for fresh air and open spaces – to connect with nature, explore new hobbies, and find moments of peace.

The number of people recreating outdoors in 2020 rose 4.6% nationwide, according to a report released in June by the State Outdoor Business Alliance Network (SOBAN). In comparison, the year before the pandemic saw a modest increase of 1.2%.

Long before the pandemic, communities in northern Michigan embraced outdoor recreation as a unique selling point for the region. Go to any city’s visitors’ bureau website and you’ll constantly see pictures of people paddling canoes, forest bike trails, and hauled fish. Splashed over these images, slogans selling the flavor of each city: “Great Lakes Sanctuary (Alpena),“ Gateway to the Waterways ”(Cheboygan),“ Naturally ”(Oscoda) and so on.

There’s a reason so much emphasis is placed on the outdoors when it comes to introducing Northeastern Michigan to visitors: Tourism structured around outdoor recreation is an important and growing part of the economy of our region.

“Our entire platform is focused on Alpena being a modern city at the gateway to nature,” said Mary Beth Stutzman, President and CEO of Alpena Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Promoting recreation is what we do. People can have these outdoor experiences while enjoying the modern conveniences of great cafes, accommodations, restaurants and retail outlets. This is the whole package.

As the number of outdoor recreationists increases, new opportunities and challenges regarding recreation access, stewardship and economic growth will arise.

Last year, sales of recreational equipment rose across the board: bicycle sales rose 121%, boat sales rose 70%, and camping equipment jumped 28%, according to the SOBAN report. This bodes well not only for local outfitters, but for entire communities whose identities are built around the outdoors.

Celebrating our natural resources through recreation requires a balance between access and overuse. Recreation requires infrastructure and continuous stewardship of the landscape. Trails must be cleared and maintained to accommodate backpackers and mountain bikers. Public lands rely on access points, parking areas, garbage removal and decontamination to keep the woods and water safe and for everyone to enjoy. Parks, campgrounds and recreation areas need land management to support the plant and animal habitats that make them special places to visit.

“We anticipate a really robust summer and we will need to work hard on education efforts to make sure we protect our outdoor tourism assets,” said Paul Beachnau, executive director of the Gaylord Area Convention and Tourism Bureau (slogan, “All Outdoors”) and Huron Pines board member. “We always encourage people to visit our natural resources, but we want visitors to understand and respect them.”

Huron Pines supports efforts to expand ownership of public lands and improve access to recreation to connect more people to nature and inspire them to take action to manage the places they love.

In January, Huron Pines announced the purchase of a 145-acre parcel of coastal property in Iosco County. Thanks to a grant and fundraising, the property will become a public reserve of the canton of Alabaster.

The property, just south of the town of Tawas, includes nearly a mile of natural Lake Huron shoreline, mature hardwood forest, and a wetland ecosystem. It also promotes local economic and recreational interests: the trailhead and parking area for the Alabaster Township Bike Path and Arboretum are located on the south side of the property and there is potential for future hiking trails and public access to Lake Huron.

“This opportunity, to protect a precious shoreline in the heart of a residential and commercial area, is a way to engage the community and its visitors in conservation for decades to come,” said Brad Jensen, executive director of Huron Pines , in January. .

People participating in any outdoor recreation activity can follow seven simple “Leave No Trace” principles to minimize their own impact on natural resources and ensure a positive experience for all users. These include:

● Anticipate and prepare

● Stay on the trails and camp in designated areas

● Dispose of garbage, waste and toilet paper properly

● Leave stones, plants and other objects as you find them

● Use existing rings of fire and minimize the impact of your fire

● Respect wildlife

● Pay attention to other visitors

If you are visiting northern Michigan, welcome. We will see you there.

Chris Engle is a communications partner for Huron Pines, a nonprofit organization based in Gaylord and Alpena. Huron Pines aims to help conserve and enhance northern Michigan’s natural resources to ensure healthy water, protected places and vibrant communities. Huron Pines strives to improve economic, environmental, educational and recreational opportunities in northern Michigan. Learn more about huronpines.org.


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