Best of the West: Outdoor recreation powers economic comeback; find the Blue Ribbon Schools; First Americans Museum opens in Oklahoma; retracing the Santa Fe Trail

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Sept 20, 2021. (Photos courtesy of Mark Bosky and Hart Van Denburg) 

A record number of Americans sought out nature over the last year to safely congregate and rejuvenate their souls. A new report from the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) found that 7 million more Americans participated in outdoor recreation in 2020 than in 2019, increasing the participation rate for those 6 and older to 53% -- the highest on record. 

As a result of this surge, as well as personal savings due to federal stimulus, several national and state parks set visitation records, buoying the economies of gateway communities throughout the West – a policy discussed during the WGA webinar COVID-19 Impacts to Gateway CommunitiesThe Governors also address the issue in the Policy Resolution, National Parks and the West, which notes the economic importance of National Parks to tourism-dependent gateway communities. 

According to The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 10 western states relied on outdoor recreation for at least 2% of their total GDP and 3% of total employment. More specifically, the approximately 237 million visitors at National Parks during 2020 (89 million in WGA member states) spent $14.5 billion in communities within 60 miles of a national park (more than $8 billion in WGA member states). 

In many western states, this trend has continued into 2021. For example, the Montana state park system experienced a 44% increase in visitation during the first six months of 2021 compared to the same time in 2019 – as did Rocky Mountain National Park in ColoradoGrand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks in Wyoming also set visitation records. 

With the full economic potential for outdoor recreation becoming clear, several western states are expanding opportunities and improving infrastructure in hopes of attracting more visitors and helping their economies rebuild in the wake of COVID-19, including:

  • Arizona is investing $101.1 million in American Rescue Plan funding to launch the Visit Arizona Initiative, a program designed to increase visitation to the state, bolster job creation, and accelerate economic recovery;
  • Nevada is investing $1.5 million in outdoor recreation to diversify its tourism industry, including $600,000 for trail system and outdoor recreation infrastructure planning and rehabilitation, and $300,000 to develop the Adventure NV mobile app. 
  • The state Department of Land and Natural Resources in Hawaii unveiled a free mobile phone app offering information to the public on hiking trails and hunting areas around the state.
  • In Colorado, communities such as Hayden are looking to transition their economies to focus on outdoor recreation and fill in the financial gaps created by shifts in the energy markets.   

HEALTHCARE REBIRTH: The historic St. Vincent Hospital (now St. Vincent Health) in Leadville, Colorado, which was launched by the Kansas-based Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth during the Colorado gold rush of the 1870s, has come back from the brink of financial ruin by offering a more robust set of services that residents used to have to drive hours to access. Today, St. Vincent Health is thriving in a brand-new facility and local officials hope the hospital can be an economic engine and an anchor for the rural community amid an economic transition. Learn more abouthow rural communities across the West are working to bolster healthcare access and overcome barriers to providing care, in WGA’s Out West Podcast, Healthcare Innovations in the West.

BLUE RIBBON SCHOOLS: The U.S. Department of Education named 71 schools in WGA’s member states as National Blue Ribbon awardees for 2021. The schools were selected for overall academic performance or progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups.  “In the face of unprecedented circumstances, you found creative ways to engage, care for, protect, and teach our children,” said U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. “Blue Ribbon Schools have so much to offer and can serve as a model for other schools and communities so that we can truly build back better.”

NATIVE HISTORY: Get a glimpse inside the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma, which features comprehensive exhibits that honor the Tribes in a state that was once considered Indian Territory by the United States government. And see highlights from its grand opening ceremony in Oklahoma City, which included curated performances by musicians, poets, drum groups, dancers and storytellers from all 39 tribes in the state. 

COWBOY BUSINESS: This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Santa Fe Trail as a major commercial route across the Great Plains. Stretching more than 800 miles between the Missouri River and Santa Fe, New Mexico, the trail brought some 100,000 people to Colorado when the Pikes Peak Gold Rush starts in 1858 and help spur commerce throughout the West.

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