Has the pandemic saved outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania and beyond?
While the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on schools, businesses, and social events for much of 2020, it may have done the exact opposite for outdoor recreation. Following a few dismal years of dwindling participation in outdoor pursuits such as hunting and fishing, these activities are now experiencing a surge in novice and returning enthusiasts willing to partake.
It is likely that with foiled vacation plans, more free time with fewer commitments, and the ability to safely social distance outdoors, more people are turning to open spaces for an escape from the mundane limitations the virus has placed on society.
Observations in the field reveal a greater number of people hiking in parks, biking on rail trails, and kayaking local waterways. People who haven’t fished for years bought a license this year, and more folks are turning to camping as a viable option for family getaways.
“Ever since the Governor’s decision to open campgrounds on May 1st, we’ve been very, very busy,” said Bev Gruber of the PA Campground Owners Association. “Our numbers are way up over previous years, and we’re seeing a considerable increase in first-time campers. We like that, and we hope they enjoy themselves enough to keep coming back.”
A recent DCNR report compiling data from 115 of Pennsylvania’s State Parks matches this trend for public campsites as well. June 2020 saw over 1-million more park visitors than June of 2019, for an 18.6% total increase, with six parks seeing a 100-percent increase and 24 parks experiencing a 50-percent increase from the previous year.
According to data from the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission as of July 8th, fishing license sales are up roughly 19% from last year, as well.
“That’s huge for us,” said PFBC Communications Director Mike Parker. “That equates to about 130,000 more fishing licenses sold than last year. With everything going on, we kind of braced for a decline in sales this year, but things actually worked out in our favor as people discovered or rediscovered the outdoors.”
Based on retail sales, kayaking is also seeing a marked explosion in popularity, as it’s difficult for dealers to keep the small crafts in stock. The website for Bass Pro Shops of Harrisburg is showing “Out of Stock” on most of its Ascend kayak models, and Dunham’s Sports of Lebanon only had two units left in the entire store at time of contact; both of which carried high-end price tags of over $1,000.
Launch permit sales are up too, as the Fish & Boat Commission has already sold 41,667 more launch permits in 2020 (125,693 total) than in all of 2019, for a nearly 50-percent increase overall. And since launch permits are only required for unpowered vessels within State parks and forests, as well as commission lakes and access areas, this likely doesn’t account for all canoes or kayaks used within the commonwealth.
As fall athletics and other activities remain in question, the Pennsylvania Game Commission is also hoping to see a boost in license sales, especially given the new hunting opportunities added to the 2020-21 season.
With three Sundays, a longer early archery season and September squirrel opener slated for this year, the agency is hopeful more Pennsylvania residents will turn to hunting and trapping as an alternative form of recreation, when other outlets may be limited.
Time will tell, but early indications already show an 8-percent increase from the start of sales for the new license year through the Sunday before the first round of antlerless license sales compared to the previous year, a positive outlook for the commission.
During a time when everything seems to be doom and gloom, the recent growing interest in outdoor recreation provides a bright spot on the horizon. The more people who come to appreciate these wild spaces so many sportsmen already know and love, the better off they will be preserved well into the future. That’s good news for the outdoors.