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For rural America in decline—those small towns of shuttered factories, sawmills, and schools—outdoor recreation is the new hope. Smokestack-chasing is out, the public is told. A diversified economy based on environmental protection is in.
Last month, the Biden Administration relaunched an outdoor recreation council and promised to expand the industry to “help people thrive across rural America.” But reviving a struggling town isn’t a simple task.
In rural Appalachia, structural forces have left much of the region behind as economic and political power shifts to the Sun Belt. Yet, the decline isn’t terminal or guaranteed.
Locals have two options: They can repeat the foolishness of the past by putting hope in utopian promises for one giant industry to save them; or, they can build up local leadership to make communities more livable and organically grow a variety of existing businesses.
Though one approach won’t work everywhere, hope abounds in small experiments. The leading lights will not be federal officials or state politicians; instead, what’s needed is locals who use the assets they have—and run with them to build the future.
Outdoor recreation isn’t the only answer for the region. But, for a number of rural places, it seems to be a viable option. Hiking, skiing, critter-watching, hunting, and generally exploring one’s no-wifi backyard can grow local economies and offer manufacturing potential, along with high-value services.
States like Pennsylvania are betting big on outdoor recreation. The commonwealth’s head of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) has declared outdoor recreation a “lottery ticket” that’s “bigger than gas, bigger than a lot of industries combined.” The praise is now policy: DCNR has been reluctant to lease more public land for natural gas development, worried that it could undermine outdoor recreation.
“I want the people here to know that when I think about the future of Pennsylvania and its competitiveness,” Shapiro said at the popular Kinzua Bridge State Park in McKean County last fall. Officials estimate that outdoor recreation will bring in about $14 billion for the state. Expanding the industry also offers some advantages, like lower overhead costs.
“We see outdoor recreation as the key to the competitiveness of our rural areas,” said Nathan Reigner, Pennsylvania Director of Outdoor Recreation. “As we stimulate advanced and innovative businesses in rural areas—which are great places to have an innovative business—we need to attract and retain highly mobile, highly competitive workers in those places.”
The testing ground for the outdoor recreation revolution is the Pennsylvania Wilds, a 13-county region in the north-central part of the state. The Wilds bills itself as “one of the largest expanses of green between New York City and Chicago.” There, communities like Ridgway in Elk County and Kane in McKean County have encouraged outdoor recreation for economic growth and quality of life improvements to keep young people in the area.
“We’re not running out of jobs—we’re running out of people,” said Sam MacDonald, president of the Elk County Catholic School System and a former Ridgway borough councilman. “What economic development really needs here is improving the town enough so people will want to move here or move back, not move away.”
After a stint in Washington D.C., MacDonald returned to Ridgway to raise his family. But now, repeating his path may be difficult for millennials and Generation Z due to a housing supply crunch. Few new houses get built, and not enough existing ones get renovated.
MacDonald and Reigner share the same vision: making rural areas attractive to visitors starts with making them good for locals.
Tourists come to Ridgway for kayaking and fishing in the Clarion River and its annual Chainsaw Carvers Rendezvous. “When I was a kid here, the Clarion River was a cesspool,” MacDonald said. “There wasn’t a fish in the world that could live in the Clarion River…today, it’s a world-class trout stream.”
The river becoming a tourist attraction wasn’t necessarily the goal, even if that’s the argument used to make it a priority.
“In order to clean up the river, sometimes you have to say ‘this is for tourism and economic development,'” MacDonald said. “If somebody comes here from London to go fishing, that’s fine. The bigger upside was cleaning it up makes it a better place to live—I don’t give a shit if it’s a better place to visit.”
Though he’s an outdoor recreation booster, MacDonald also calls himself an enormous skeptic—because there’s a tendency to exaggerate the sector’s benefits.
When he served on the borough council, some locals wanted to expand all-terrain vehicle (ATV) trails. But Ridgway as a four-wheeler destination is an awkward fit. Pennsylvania Department of Transportation controls all roads in and out of town (and isn’t shy of fining the ATV riders caught on state roads). The land that surrounds it is controlled by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which “absolutely hates ATVs,” MacDonald said.
But devoted riders showed up to local meetings to make a push for ATV trails anyway, promising economic development. An ATV partisan who led the local chamber of commerce said seven businesses were ready to open—if only the town opened the streets to ATVs. But he refused to say what the businesses were.
“This went on for a year,” MacDonald explained. “Another borough council member told the chamber, ‘We need that list’ … Magically, two days later, they came and said, ‘there’s 37 businesses that are opening.’ I said, ’37 businesses? What kind of business—what are you talking about?'”
The ATV booster finally revealed one potential: a pickle store. “How many goddamn pickles do these people eat?!” MacDonald asked.
The ATV experiment never came to pass, nor did any of the promised businesses.
In McKean County, 20 miles north of Ridgway, leaders in the town of Kane talk about a renaissance, much of it based on outdoor recreation and boomerangs—the young people who left the area and returned to raise a family. Kane has recreational bike trails, proximity to Kinzua Bridge State Park, and easy access to the Allegheny National Forest—the only federally owned forest in the Commonwealth.
Local leaders credit collaboration for their new growth. They hold monthly coffee meetings (called SPARKS) with political, business, school, and community leaders. They talk about the grants for which they’re applying, new initiatives that need support, and delegate responsibility for tackling problems.
“We’ve been able to look at small issues and larger issues and fix some things,” Mayor Brandy Schimp said.
Take the rural doctor shortage. When the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Kane recruits a doctor, Kane Area Regional Development Director Kate Kennedy gives them a tour of the town, and then others join for dinner to convince the doctor to accept the job. Health care gaps won’t disappear with a personal touch, but for small towns, an extra health care worker or two can make waves.
Projects like painting a city mural, installing bike racks, and planning a large homecoming celebration all build toward the future. “Active and attractive communities attract people,” Schimp explained.
Getting locals engaged starts at an early age. For more than a decade, the town hosts Kare for Kane every May, a mass volunteer effort for children and adults. In its best year, more than 600 people participated—in a town of 3,200.
“What we try to do with kids is create that sense of ownership and pride in your community, and that is really, really important to these rural areas,” Schimp said. “If they don’t feel connected to your community, what are you doing all this work for?”
Kane’s success depends on its people, which makes it hard to copy.
“People come in here without egos,” Schimp said. “Kate and I have been approached by several different communities to share the SPARKS approach, and we can typically tell within five minutes of being in the room whether what we say is going to matter to them. If people aren’t coming in with an open mind…you’re just not going to see the successes.”
The plan for the future is to make Kane a hub for arts and culture, aided by state grants and other initiatives. “We’re shifting Kane from a gateway to a destination,” Schimp said. Work is in progress to build a children’s museum—an attraction that’s not dependent on good weather like state parks.
For outdoor attractions, the Pennsylvania Wilds region benefits from so much state game land and the Allegheny National Forest. Other parts of rural Pennsylvania and Appalachia may not be able to copy the playbook, but the Wilds gives some hope.
The Wilds also hasn’t seen a complete economic collapse; manufacturing remains strong. Places where outdoor recreation is seen as the last hope tend to struggle.
“The places where it works well is where there’s already a diversified economy,” said Bynum Boley of the University of Georgia and director of its Tourism Research Lab. “So people aren’t latching on to outdoor recreation as a savior.”
Transformation doesn’t simply come; outdoor recreation may be an improvement, but it’s not a godsend.
“Communities that used to be resource extraction communities…a lot of times these rural areas are left with not many other options,” Boley said. “When you don’t have any other options, you can get pushed around a little bit more by the tourist dollar.”
Outdoor recreation might be better understood as signaling what places are viable. Bike trails and watersports won’t save every township. With a region in decline and a shrinking, aging population, leaders might have to make hard decisions about saving two places rather than fail to save eight.
Rejuvenating those spots, though, will mean getting rid of government roadblocks. From building houses to issuing nursing licenses to environmental permits, Pennsylvania takes months longer than other states. The story is the same for outdoor recreation.
“‘No’ is no longer an acceptable response; it is ‘how do we work to come to a fair assessment?'” said Rep. Mike Armanini, who represents Elk County and part of Clearfield County. “There are still a lot of regulations that we need to address…. In Pennsylvania, it is so unfriendly and it’s a long and painstaking process if you want to move forward with industry. It just really bogs down growth.”
He noted frustrations with state agencies like the Fish and Boat Commission, which has been reluctant to let e-bikes on its lands. Infrastructure upgrades in rural areas can be tough, too: state-owned lands deprive townships and municipalities of the tax revenue to fund them. “These entities, they need to reinvest in (the localities),” Armanini said.
State agencies aren’t only roadblocks, of course. Armanini was quick to point out that the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has been helpful with ATV trails. Yet the constellation of chokepoints can jeopardize big projects, and the wait time to get cross-agency approval can kill them.
“The key is, how do we take advantage of everything without taking shortcuts and truly making sure that we look at every nook and cranny,” Armanini said. “But for all that to happen, it takes your [Department of Environmental Protection], it takes all your agencies and commissions to sit down and have to work together…you have to have good leadership.”
Until something breaks, local leaders may be on their own. “As legislators not truly working together, we’re hurting ourselves, which is hurting Pennsylvania,” Armanini said. “It’s unbelievable how bad it is.”
Revival efforts in places like Kane also matter because they have secondary effects: they spur competition. “The last five years, things are bustling up here,” said Cheryl Ruffner of the Elk County Riders, a local ATV group. Beyond Kane, projects in Ridgway, St. Marys, Johnsonburg, and nearby townships are blooming. “I see all this hustling and bustling all over the place … it’s all starting to brew.”
Kane Mayor Brandy Schimp, “she’s got fire,” Ruffner said. “I really think Kane was one of those things like ‘they’re revitalizing—why shouldn’t we?'”
Though much is new and uncharted, expanding outdoor recreation in Appalachia has some potential. The region isn’t doomed. State officials, perhaps too optimistic, are at least wary of selling the industry as the only fix.
“When it comes to economic and community development, outdoor recreation is a piece of the puzzle,” said Reigner, Pennsylvania’s outdoor recreation director. “Think about making a stew: That stew’s gonna have a couple of main ingredients. Maybe beef and potatoes and carrots. Outdoor recreation is the salt in the stew of economic development. It may not be the main ingredient, but if we prepare that dish without it, it’s gonna be bland and nobody’s gonna ask for seconds.”
Reigner’s metaphor raises a problem. Outdoor recreation may attract people to a rural area. But it’s hard to pull in tech workers or keep young people when the internet is shoddy and access to health care an hour’s drive away.
Instead of chasing megaprojects like hydrogen hubs, making rural infrastructure better could have a better long-term payoff. Strengthening the basics is also more replicable than competing with other areas for one-off projects.
“We want to reimagine rural,” Mayor Schimp said. Coordination problems, infrastructure issues, and population loss plague many Appalachian counties. But better marketing of rural areas could go a long way.
Rural places, after all, can be a destination as much as cities. Gov. Shapiro said roads could “lead right through rural communities” when he thinks about the future of Pennsylvania. But that rubbed some people the wrong way.
An entrepreneurial spirit, a shift in thinking about economic development, and outdoor recreation could help some small towns be at the end of that road—not just a place to drive through.