Editorial: Your Tax Dollars at work? The “Cost” of Outdoor Adventure
If you’ve been anywhere near a device with a screen and the ability to connect to the internet, you’ve probably heard in “Climbing News” recently that Will Gadd and Sarah Hueniken became the first people to climb Niagara falls and that Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson successfully completed the Dawn Wall project. Thanks to online news outlets, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and other social media the climbing world was tapped in to progress reports, immediate notifications and all manner of other ways to follow and interact with the athletes involved.
While these climbing feats are no doubt impressive, what is almost equally fascinating is the way in which the “non climbing world” and “mainstream media” has picked up on climbing lately as a news item. We’ve definitely had some fun at their expense, laughing at the now infamous ABC News interview wherein the great “Alex Honnlove” provided some pretty hard hitting commentary on the Dawn Wall climb, or shaking our heads at the ridiculous comments from the public at large on news articles. (See Brendan Leonard’s article over at adventure journal NY Times Commenters Explain Why the Dawn Wall Climb is Dumb).
But there is a distinction in my mind between silly comments of Non-Climbers simply being uninformed / wrong about details, and the more troubling and universal type of public commentary which I’ve seen over, and over, and over again about any climbing/adventure sport related story: “This Type Of Activity Shouldn’t Be Allowed Because it Costs My Hard Earned Tax Dollars.”
Usually the commenter is referring to the cost of a potential rescue. The assumption is that the person engaging in the Adventure Sport is going to need rescuing, and that is going to cost taxpayer money for SAR personnel to go and get them, usually in a helicopter.
Although this view is problematic in many ways (especially from the perspective of the adventure sports community), it’s not entirely wrong in it’s logic. Helicopters take gas to fly, and gas costs money. People who are properly skilled and trained need to be manning those helicopters, and they have to eat. But even with those costs the vast majority of Search and Rescue organizations and personnel are volunteers, with Government funded SAR programs employing paid full time staff few and far between (Kananaskis Public Safety in Alberta is a great example of a professional SAR program, and also one of the best in Canada)
The result of this is that it isn’t entirely clear what the actual cost to the taxpayer is, but even though it probably isn’t that high the problem remains in public perception: Going Outside is Dangerous, Dangerous Things Cost ME money, I don’t go Outside, Why should I have to PAY?
Part of that perception may be unsolvable because people argue that against just about everything: Public Education, Healthcare, Social infrastructure of any kind. But what strikes me about this issue specifically is that Search and Rescue costs are usually the only cost anyone considers or talks about in the outdoor sports discussion.
What isn’t talked about are the massive financial benefits to all of us that comes with increased outdoor recreation. For example in 2014, collectively America’s state parks had a $20 Billion impact on local economies. Visitation numbers across the U.S. in State and National parks was uniformly up. Purchases From concessioners alone amounted to approx $1.2 Billion. Patagonia, Black Diamond, Arc’Teryx, REI, MEC and other major outdoors companies employed thousands of people across North America and the World.
And that is minor compared to the well studied relationship between increased physical activity and long term health costs. We know that getting kids outside and getting them active makes them healthier and develop better in the long run, but what we don’t have a clear idea about are the financial numbers. How much does childhood inactivity and poor eating build systemic patterns that contribute to long term population health problems like obesity and heart disease? How much does that cost “the system?” Will Gadd wrote a great article in Explore about this exact issue. And it’s not like any of this is rocket science: we know that even just minor levels of participation in Outdoor Recreation can have serious benefits health wise.
The reason this is important is because any discussion or commentary that discourages outdoor recreation, media coverage that characterizes it as always “unsafe”or “foolish”, or promotes the idea that healthy activities like climbing, hiking and skiing in the backcountry are only for reckless daredevils and should be always done in sterilized and quarantined monitored “inbounds” zones at resorts is bad for all of us.
We know that National Parks budgets in Canada are perpetually being cut, SAR programs both volunteer and otherwise are stretched to the limit financially, and public recreation areas are continually threatened to closure for private development interests. If we aren’t having much luck selling people on the intagible benefits of “Going Outside” (like being happier, healthier, having a great life, building meaningful relationships, and having alot of fun) maybe the outdoors industry should start lobbying the way politicians and voters seem to think: focus on their wallets.
Basically the question I’m asking is: How much does it cost the Taxpayer for you to sit on the Couch all day? I don’t have the numbers, but I’m guessing it is one helluva lot more than a few volunteers in a helicopter.