How Recreation Powers Northern Michigan’s Economy

The year 2020 was a big one for outdoor recreation. Across the country, people looked to the woods and waters to find fresh air and open spaces — to connect to nature, explore new hobbies and find moments of peace. 

The number of people recreating outdoors in 2020 increased by 4.6 percent nationwide, according to a report released in June by the State Outdoor Business Alliance Network (SOBAN). In comparison, the year prior to the pandemic saw a modest 1.2-percent rise.

Long before the pandemic, Northern Michigan communities embraced outdoor recreation as a unique selling point for the region. Go to the visitors bureau website of any city and you’ll consistently see photos of people paddling canoes, biking forest trails and hoisting fish. Splashed across these images are slogans selling the flavor of each town: “Sanctuary of the Great Lakes (Alpena), “Gateway to the Waterways” (Cheboygan), “Naturally” (Oscoda) and so on.

The front pages of visitors bureau websites across Northern Michigan (clockwise from top left): Cheboygan, Alpena, Gaylord, Tawas, Oscoda, Grayling.

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

“Our entire platform centers around Alpena being a modern city at nature’s doorstep,” 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 but still have the modern conveniences of great coffee shops, lodging, restaurants and retail. It’s the whole package.”

As the number of people taking up outdoor recreation trends upward, new opportunities and challenges around recreational access, stewardship and economic growth will arise.

Last year, sales of recreational equipment increased across the board: Bike sales were up 121 percent, boat sales increased by 70 percent, and camping equipment jumped by 28 percent, according to the SOBAN report. This bodes well not just for local outfitters, but for entire communities whose identities are built around the outdoors.

Erica and Mark Jones use a guidebook to identify birds during a birding trip to Alpena’s North Point in May. Binocular sales spiked in 2020 as people flocked to outdoor recreation activities like birdwatching.

Celebrating our natural resources through recreation requires a balance between access and overuse. Recreation takes infrastructure and ongoing stewardship of the landscape. Trails need to be cleared and maintained to accommodate backpackers and mountain bikers. Public land relies on access points, parking areas, waste removal and decontamination to keep woods and waters healthy and to allow everyone an opportunity to enjoy them. Parks, campgrounds and recreation areas need land management to support the plant and animal habitats that make them special places to visit.

“We’re forecasting a really robust summer and we’ll need to work hard on education efforts to make sure we are protecting our outdoor tourism assets,” said Paul Beachnau, Executive Director of the Gaylord Area Convention and Tourism Bureau (slogan, “All Outdoors”) and a board member of Huron Pines. “We always encourage people to visit our natural resources but we want visitors to have an understanding and respect for them.”

Huron Pines supports efforts to expand public land ownership and improve recreational access to connect more people to nature and inspire them to take action to steward the places they love. 

In January, Huron Pines announced the purchase of a 145-acre parcel of coastal property in Iosco County. With grant and fundraising support, the property will become a public Alabaster Township preserve. 

The shoreline of a 145-acre parcel in Alabaster Township, Iosco County. Huron Pines is seeking grant and fundraising support to make the property a public preserve.

The property, just south of Tawas City, includes nearly a mile of natural Lake Huron shoreline, mature hardwood forest and 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 property’s south side and there is potential for future walking 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,” Brad Jensen, Executive Director of Huron Pines, said back 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:

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Stay on trails and camp in designated areas
  • Dispose of trash, waste and toilet paper properly
  • Leave rocks, plants and other objects as you found them
  • Use existing fire rings and minimize your fire impact
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors

If you’re visiting Northern Michigan, welcome. We’ll see you out there.

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