Eva Beaule wasn’t sure what might happen when she and her husband, Mike, opened an outfitter in the tiny community of Mendota, Va. several years ago. Their property sits in an ideal location along the North Fork of the Holston River not far from the Tennessee line, but it takes a long, winding route on narrow roads to get there. “There’s no cell phone service out here,” Beaule says, “and we’re seventeen miles from a grocery store.”

But geographic isolation hasn’t stopped the Beaules’ shop, Adventure Mendota, from booming. While business started slow—no one came out to Adventure Mendota’s opening day—thousands of customers have since come to float the North Fork. The outfitter is now one of the most popular outdoor businesses in the region.

The Beaules aren’t alone in their success. In fact, the story of Adventure Mendota—an entrepreneur growing a dream into a thriving outdoor business—could apply to almost any corner of Appalachia. Outfitters have sprouted from the pastoral banks of the North Fork to urban stretches of the French Broad. Mountain communities are reinventing themselves to attract hikers, mountain bikers, and climbers. Revamped downtowns across the region are complete with microbreweries and Airbnbs. And the region’s national forests and state parks are being reimagined not just as weekend getaways but as economic support systems for small towns and entire states alike.

A quick look at the numbers shows just how much of an economic behemoth the outdoor industry has become. In 2017, the Outdoor Industry Association estimated that outdoor recreation accounted for nearly $900 billion in consumer spending and just over 7.5 million direct jobs nationwide—more than the coal and gas industries combined. Those trends hold closer to home in the Blue Ridge. A recent report by the Outdoor Alliance found that the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests—just two of more than ten national forests across the larger Appalachian region—host 4.6 million visitors annually and plug $115 million into local economies each year.

As impressive as those figures are, questions remain about what role outdoor recreation has in the region’s economic future. Can recreation replace the extractive industries that have dominated the mountains for more than a century? Are outdoor entrepreneurs really building the base of a new economy, or are their small businesses simply feel-good stories without lasting economic impact? Finding the answers to those questions is one of the biggest challenges currently facing Appalachia—one that may shape the region for generations to come.

The Outdoor Economy by the Numbers

$9 billion in annual consumer spending on outdoor recreation in West Virginia

366 full-time jobs supported by mountain biking in North Carolina’s Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests

7,500 unique climbers visiting Kentucky’s Red River Gorge annually. Visitors spend an estimated $3.6 million each year.

$13.61 generated for every dollar of tax revenue provided to Virginia state parks in 2016

—Outdoor Industry Association, Outdoor Alliance, Eastern Kentucky University, Virginia Association for Parks

Growing an Industry

It’s impossible to understand the growth of the East’s outdoor economy without first considering the historical arc of land use trends across Appalachia. From early European settlement through the mid-1900s, the predominant force in the Appalachian economy was resource extraction: timber harvesting along the Blue Ridge, coal to the west along the Appalachian Plateau, and agriculture in the Great Valley in between.

In fact, many of the region’s national forests and parks were created as a reaction to the ecological devastation caused by those industries decades earlier. President Franklin D. Roosevelt acknowledged as much during his address at the 1940 dedication of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, stating that “we realize now that we committed excesses which we are today seeking to atone for.” That atonement paved the way for public lands that became hubs of outdoor activity across the nation.

Outdoor businesses began to capitalize on those assets later in the 20th century, with outlets like Western North Carolina’s Nantahala Outdoor Center leading the charge. The center opened in 1972 at the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and Nantahala River Gorge and has since grown into one of the nation’s leading outfitters, producing Olympic whitewater champions and hundreds of regional jobs. In the decades since its creation, a litany of businesses and communities have followed suit to build a thriving outdoor economy, even as traditional industries have waned.

Todd Christensen has watched that transition throughout his career. Christensen, recently retired as executive director of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation, has helped lead efforts to revitalize distressed communities throughout 19 Virginia counties. In many ways, Christensen’s region serves as a microcosm for how a decline in extractive industries has catalyzed an increased focus on the outdoors. Over the past few decades, manufacturing employment in Southwest Virginia fell by half, agricultural jobs declined, and coal mining jobs dropped by nearly 70 percent. Those impacts, Christensen says, left many communities looking for new economic options.

“The big opportunity I think a lot of people saw was outdoor recreation,” he says. Southwest Virginia’s communities began marketing outdoor assets residents had taken advantage of for decades.

“It wasn’t that there wasn’t anybody doing any outdoor recreation. It wasn’t that the assets weren’t there,” Christensen says. “It was about connecting them all to a common theme to brand the region.” Since 2001, the region has added nearly 3,000 leisure and hospitality jobs, along with a more than $300 million increase in travel expenditures.

While many communities in Southwest Virginia are just starting to capitalize on the outdoors, other areas, such as Western North Carolina, have had a focus on the outdoors for generations.