How to boost local economic, health and conservation outcomes through outdoor recreation

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Seth Brown, Vice President, Quantified Ventures, Jonas Epstein, Conservation Finance Project Specialist, United States Forest Service


  • When industries historically supporting local economies go into decline, their assets deplete without serious investment and regeneration.
  • Outdoor recreation assets can spur sustainable economic development through public-private collaboration and investment.
  • The Baileys Trail System in the Wayne National Forest in Appalachian Ohio provides a replicable case study for public-private collaboration.

The wealth of natural resources in Southeast Ohio has supported industries and jobs dating back to the 1700s, including salt, timber, brick and coal mining. However, as the demand for these extractive resources declined, Southeast Ohio’s boom turned into a bust, having a significant economic impact on the most vulnerable counties in the state.

Turning to the present day, the Wayne National Forest – headquartered in Athens County – is the only national forest in Ohio. It encompasses thousands of acres of abandoned coal mines and in the 2000s, the community began to see these mines as underutilized assets rather than “scars.”

Together, the community, local governments, Quantified Ventures and the United States Forest Service re-envisioned this terrain as a world-class trail system and premier mountain bike destination. Such an asset could attract visitors, spur infrastructure investments and diversify the economy in the small, struggling towns of Southeast Ohio.

We saw the kernels of an idea but lacked the local capacity and the capital to help the idea take flight. So the model we developed is a recreational public-private collaboration now being replicated in four states.

Pegging finance to results

We believed we could secure up-front capital to initiate the recreational space through outcomes-based financing. Through this model private investment provides a portion of the upfront cost of building the Baileys Trail System with repayment tied to the successful achievement of the project’s economic development outcomes, in this case increased sales tax and transient guest taxes.

The Wayne National Forest is within 600 miles of 60% of the United States population. This accessibility was a good starting point to prove the project’s viability as it meant a lot of people would be able to use the trail.

Project developer Quantified Ventures coupled market research with an economic impact study to project the kind of impact an 88-mile trail – dubbed the Baileys Trail System – could generate during the next 10 years. It indicated millions of dollars in economic benefits, access to outdoor recreation, healthcare delivery savings, conservation, connectivity and social inclusion.

Baileys Trail System will draw more than 181,000 visitors per year. In 10 years, these visitors will result in $6.9 million in higher wages, $7.3 million in increased tax revenue and $20.1 million in increased spending, according to Quantified Ventures estimates.

Putting planning into action

Once we had quantified the trail’s regional impacts, we shared those forecasts with local elected officials and investors. This process kickstarted the development of the Baileys Trail System as the region’s premier playground for mountain biking aficionados and local outdoor enthusiasts.

From there, Quantified Ventures, local governments, investors and the United States Forest Service worked to:

  • Bring in local organizational structures, including: 1) a local council of governments – the Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia; 2) annual funding to boost local capacity through a full-time ORCA Executive Director; 3) a nonprofit economic development partner – Athens-Wayne Outdoor Asset Development Corporation – to manage the trail as a sustainable social enterprise.
  • Secure $11 million in public and private financing for the 88-mile trail system.
  • Provide technical assistance for business strategy, planning and local capacity building.
  • Position ORCA to scale beyond the Baileys Trail System and expand to 11 counties in Appalachian, Ohio.

To date, more than 31 miles of trail have been built, 78 additional jobs created on top of 150 retained and $2 million in government funding secured at federal and state levels. The trail’s development has also led entrepreneurs in the surrounding towns to invest in local businesses, such as a restaurant and brewery that will occupy an old school building.

Phase IV construction of 26 additional miles of the trail began in July 2022. All of this progress occurred during a global health pandemic that presented numerous economic and logistical hurdles. However, it offered new funding opportunities and increased the public appreciation of the value of the outdoors.

Blended approach

The Baileys Trail System is a sustainable model of shared stewardship in outdoor recreation, which contributes to the ecological, social and economic growth and vibrancy of Southeast Ohio. The project has evolved into a multi-year partnership built on innovative financing and public-private collaboration supporting trail construction and complementary natural resource- and infrastructure-related projects.

In partnership with the Forest Service, Quantified Ventures is replicating this model in other US states to allow communities to solve problems together, attract public and private capital and retain local asset ownership that generates long-term revenue.

We work hand-in-hand with municipalities to develop outdoor recreation infrastructure – campgrounds, visitor centres or other outdoor infrastructure – and grow local outdoor economies through our proven playbook based on three core principles:

  • Collective management – The Baileys Trail System’s collaborative management structure included the US Forest Service, Athens Wayne Outdoor Asset Development Corporation and the Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia.
  • Blended financing and revenue-sharing – We blended public funding from federal, state and local sources and private financing from investors, donors and local businesses.
  • Sustainability – Multiple, diversified revenue sources allowed expansion and self-sustained investment opportunities into the future.

Now public and private partners around the country are implementing similar projects including in California, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Washington State. Diversifying and using government, private and social impact sectors reduces risk and enhances the ability to achieve a sustainable and impactful result with desired outcomes.

While this approach is hard and time intensive, we recognize there is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution. But we also have the ability – as representatives of government, philanthropy, industry, investors and local implementors – to better align our efforts to develop and diversify the outdoor recreation economy and catalyze economic development at the local level.

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