A Week in Grand Canyon: What’s the Value of Recreation?

Photo: Amy Kober

October 10, 2012

The Colorado River is possibly the most written about, talked about, litigated river basin in the country, maybe even the world. So many competing uses depend on it — 30 million people draw on the river for water, and the river irrigates four million acres of farmland. The river is plumbed and diverted and managed beyond belief — its infrastructure system includes the two largest reservoirs in the U.S. and the longest irrigation canal in the world.

But after spending a week floating the upper stretch of the Grand Canyon, from Lee’s Ferry to Phantom Ranch with Arizona River Runners, I’m focused on the recreation value — usually the “use” that has the least amount of clout. I’m focused on how we measure and communicate that value so that recreation is seen not as a luxury, but as a real need for our health, well-being, and economy.

There’s something about a river trip that’s magic, no matter where you are. You can find it on a day trip, but the magic grows in direct correlation to the length of the float — the more nights you camp, the deeper you go into rivertime. I’ve felt it on the Salmon in Idaho, the Rogue in Oregon, the Copper in Alaska. But nothing compares to Grand Canyon. What is it about this place that causes such bliss, turns us inside out, changes our lives?

Photo: Amy Kober

What’s the value in protecting this place for “recreation”?

The business coalition Protect the Flows commissioned a study by Southwick Associates that found the Colorado River and its tributaries support a recreation economy worth $26 billion, supporting a quarter million jobs. It’s not surprising, given the 5.36 million people who raft, fish, hike, and camp in the basin.

The Outdoor Industry Association took a region-wide look. They found that each year in the West, Americans spend $256 billion on outdoor recreation, directly employing 2.3 million people and generating nearly $31 billion in federal, state and local taxes.

Nationally, Americans spend $646 billion annually on outdoor recreation. OIA notes that this is nearly double what Americans spend on pharmaceuticals annually ($331 billion).

But that’s just what people spend on gear, travel, permits, and licenses. How about the associated benefits to our physical and mental health, our relationships, feeling refreshed and more productive in our jobs and communities when we come home?

Reading back through the journal I kept in the canyon, I wonder about these intangibles. I wonder about the things you just can’t put a price tag on:

  • Like feeling my heartbeat in the perfectly still moment before entering Hance rapid, then hitting the big wave head on in Chelsea’s oar boat, laughing all the way. And seeing the vulnerability of a ladybug riding with us on the bow rope in our paddle raft.
  • Like the California condors at the Navajo Bridges and the lizards and beavers and bighorn sheep and scorpions and herons. And the ravens that are always watching, who know how to unzip tent doors and unclip dry bags.
  • Like feeling my bare feet in the cool sand, watching shooting star after shooting star.
  • Like being humbled by a swim through cold waves, shivering in the canyon shade, then finding delicious hot sun to bake my skin dry.
  • Like finding circles and spirals in the currents and constellations and the petroglyphs at Tanner. The ringtail cat tracks in the sand next to our sleeping bags. The reflection of water and sunlight rippling on Redwall Cavern.
  • Like walking up Nankoweap and drinking fresh water from a spring bubbling out of the rock.
  • Like the ability to slow down, discovering layer after layer, flowing deeper and deeper through a different kind of time.

It’s a big step forward to have numbers quantifying the value of recreation. And we’ll keep advocating for recreation’s place at the table, as river managers negotiate the basin’s many uses and needs. We’ll come armed with our statistics and dollar amounts. But hopefully we’ll also begin to do a better job articulating the non-dollar values of places like Grand Canyon, and of wild, free-flowing rivers. Hopefully we’ll become better storytellers so that we can get the decision makers to understand. Maybe one day we can get them all out on the river so they can see it, experience it, and feel it for themselves.