Outdoor Recreation as a Sustainable Export Industry: A Case Study of the Boundary Waters Wilderness


How to cite this study

Hjerpe, E.E. 2018. Outdoor recreation as a sustainable export industry: A case study of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Ecological Economics 146(2018): 60-68.


In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), conservation management and high visitation leads to a substantial regional economic impact. Region visitors were estimated to have spent more than $56 million in the three counties surrounding the BWCAW counties in 2016. The total economic output was $78 million and 1,100 full- and part-time jobs.


This study is relevant for those interested in outdoor recreation economic impact analyses encompassing several counties. This regional-scale analysis can aid future public lands planning efforts and regional development strategies. Though the author’s sample closely matches overall visitation estimates from the Superior National Forest, it represents only summer spending patterns for the region. Therefore, the study’s estimate for total regional spending is likely an underestimate since expenditure information for winter and shoulder-season visitors was not available.


This study is located in northeastern Minnesota in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It encompasses St. Louis, Lake, and Cook counties. 

Trail Type

The majority of activities in BWCAW are canoeing, boating, fishing, and camping, but there is also hiking, skiing, and dog-mushing in the wilderness.


This is one of the first peer-reviewed papers estimating the economic impacts of outdoor recreation across multiple counties. 


  • Each dollar spent by tourists generates 59 cents of regional output by associated suppliers and services — which is an output multiplier of 1.59. 
  • For every $1,000 of income created by BWACW tourism expenditures, $460 is generated in industries such as outfitters, lodges, restaurants, and retail stores. 
  • BWACW group boaters spent $1,850 per trip per group. 
  • Not including multiplier effects, BWCAW visitor expenditures contributed $50 million annually to the private sector.  


BWCAW permit trip leaders were surveyed during the summer of 2016 with 512 usable responses. The survey contained 10 questions regarding visit and visitor characteristics such as whether participants lived inside or outside the BWCAW regional zone and 16 questions regarding expenditure from outdoor recreational industries. To increase the response rate, the study offered $100 to be randomly awarded to five participants. To determine overall annual regional expenditure and demonstrate the economic losses that would occur without BWCAW visitors, the author took sample expenditures and extrapolated them to the BWCAW visitors in 2016 using IMPLAN’s impact analysis.

Added to library on November 7, 2023