Press Release

Shaping the Future of America's Outdoor Resources

Oct 6, 2009

Shaping the Future of America's Outdoor Resources

FOR RELEASE: October 6, 2009
CONTACT: RFF Office of Communications, 202-328-5026

WASHINGTON – The nation’s parks, public lands, waterways, and other outdoor recreational assets provide the American public a multitude of benefits, but a new study by Resources for the Future concludes that they face major challenges in funding and maintaining the condition of these lands and associated amenities.

This wide-ranging study, The State of the Great Outdoors: America's Parks, Public Lands, and Recreation Resources, delves into the status of America’s outdoor resources, the demand for recreation, and the financing of conservation, parks, and open space. It was carried out in conjunction with the Outdoor Resources Review Group, a bipartisan assemblage of public officials, conservation specialists, and recreation professionals that released its own policy recommendations in a July 2009 report.  

In the new study, the first comprehensive review of outdoor recreation since the late 1980s, RFF Researchers Margaret Walls, Sarah Darley, and Juha Siikamäki highlight notable trends and identify several emerging issues of concern for policymakers.

   State of the Great Outdoors: America's Parks, Public Lands, and Recreation Resources

State of the Great Outdoors: America's Parks, Public Lands, and Recreation Resources
Margaret Walls, Sarah Darley, and Juha Siikamäki
September 2009

According to the authors, declining government support for parks and other public lands “have led to maintenance backlogs, deteriorating infrastructure, resource degradation, and overall reductions in the quality of the recreational experience in many locations.” These developments have had consequences for some 655 million acres currently managed by federal agencies, including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps of Engineers, and Bureau of Reclamation. Original surveys by the authors revealed that state and local parks are also suffering.

Issues of Concern: Funding, Climate, Open Spaces

Moreover, new challenges loom large. The report concludes that impacts of climate change on natural areas across the country are already being seen and are likely to become more severe in the future. According to the authors, “development of effective adaptation policies should be a top priority of policymakers at all levels of government, but particularly for federal land-management agencies.”

Problems on public lands persist despite the proliferation of new programs and incentives at the federal, state, and local level for land conservation. In fact, the authors find that “probably the greatest change to the conservation and recreation landscape over the past quarter century concerns public and private-sector funding and financing.” Notable changes include:

More than 30 federal programs now exist, with two-thirds of these adopted in the 1990s and 2000s. They target a range of objectives – farmland protection, wildlife habitat restoration, trail construction, wetlands renewal, and more. In fiscal year 2008, spending topped $6 billion, but more than two-thirds of the money was spent on conservation programs under the Farm Bill that do not provide permanent protection and may not include public access.

Adoption of an array of new funding tools by states and localities. The report identifies 79 discrete programs in 43 states totaling $3.3 billion in fiscal year 2008. In addition, 15 states provide tax credits for conservation land and easement donations. Voter referenda at the local level have risen in importance, as have nonprofit park conservancies and friends groups. Geographic coverage of these efforts varies greatly, the authors suggest, noting that some states and communities “do a lot and some appear to do very little.”


 Margaret Walls
Margaret Walls
Senior Fellow

Juha Siikamäki
Juha Siikamäki

A much more prominent role played by private land conservation groups. The number of local land trusts has quadrupled since the late 1980s to more than 1,600 nationwide. Along with four national land trusts, they have protected an estimated 37 million acres of land from development, using conservation easements and tailoring land protection strategies to the needs of private landowners.

An Evolving Funding Landscape

These changes have coincided with a decline in the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the principal funding source for federal land acquisition and state grants for parks and recreation projects. In existence since 1965, the LWCF is credited with great success – 41,000 projects in almost every county in the country. But the authors point out that “annual funding levels have been erratic and the state grants portion of the program has declined sharply. In 2008, state grants totaled only $25 million, compared to $370 million at the program’s peak in 1979. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the drop is even more precipitous.” The authors argue that none of the other federal conservation programs provides the same type of funding as the LWCF – for permanent protection of publicly accessible recreation lands.

These trends affect everything from leisure-time activities to public health, particularly for children, among whom obesity has reached serious levels. The RFF study investigated the rising concern in many quarters over “nature-deficit disorder” among American youth and worry that a lack of time outdoors may be contributing to obesity problems in the U.S. population, as well as ill-preparing young Americans to be good stewards of the nation’s land and waters.

The findings on recreation demand are mixed. Visits to national parks and other public lands have been relatively constant since the late 1970s but have declined slightly on a per-capita basis. Participation in hunting and fishing has waned, and some evidence from national recreation surveys suggests that recreation may have shifted away from some activities and toward others. Bird watching and other wildlife viewing, for example, have grown in popularity, as has the use of off-road vehicles. Indicators from the American Time Use Survey, conducted by the U.S. Labor Department, show that time spent in outdoor recreation, while far greater today than in the mid-1960s, has declined from its peak in the early 1990s.

Several factors contribute to these trends, including demographic changes, competing forms of recreation, and less leisure time among population groups most active outdoors. The authors argue strongly for more research, particularly on youth and the link between availability of public lands and natural areas and time spent in nature-based activities, in order to provide better guidance to policymakers on spending, programs, and related priorities. Additional research would be highly useful on the supply and demand of close-to-home urban parks, which serve the 80 percent of the American public that resides in urban areas.

The State of the Great Outdoors: America's Parks, Public Lands, and Recreation Resources is available for download at The report is the final installment of more than a dozen papers and analyses produced by RFF in support of the Outdoor Resources Review Group. The Great America Outdoors report is available at

Financial support for the Outdoor Resources Review Group came from the Laurance S. Rockefeller Fund, American Conservation Association, Richard King Mellon Foundation, and David and Lucile Packard Foundation. RFF received a research grant for the project from The Conservation Fund.

Founded in 1952, Resources for the Future is an independent and nonpartisan institution devoted to research and publishing about critical issues in environmental and natural resource policy.


Founded in 1952, Resources for the Future is an independent and nonpartisan institution.