New Study Shows Climbers Are Big Contributors to Western North Carolina Economy

Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina is one of the most visited National Forests in the nation, drawing a whopping 4.6 million visitors a year. And a substantial portion of those visitors come to climb at places like Looking Glass, Whiteside Mountain, and Linville Gorge. At more than 1 million acres, Nantahala-Pisgah is home to dozens of cliffs—from crags to Grade V walls that are home to thousands of routes and boulder problems.

Linville Gorge | © Bryan Miller/Fixed Line Media

A new series of studies, commissioned by the Outdoor Alliance and conducted by researchers from Eastern Kentucky University, shows that human-powered outdoor recreation is a major economic engine for Western North Carolina.

The reports, which examines the economic impact of climbing, paddling, and mountain biking in the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, show that outdoor recreation generates $115 million annually for surrounding communities in Western North Carolina, while supporting more than 1,000 full-time jobs.

The studies highlight just how vital outdoor recreation is to this region. Outdoor Alliance commissioned these studies to illustrate why human-powered recreation deserves to be a top priority for the U.S. Forest Service, which is in the process of updating its forest plan. This forest plan will guide management of Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest for the next 15 to 20 years.

"Although climbers have been active in Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest for more than 70 years, the activity of climbing has never been officially acknowledged in the Forest Management Plan,” says Zachary Lesch-Huie, Southeast Regional Director for Access Fund. “We’ve had good collaboration with forest rangers and biologists, but it’s time to bring the Forest Plan up to speed and get climbing acknowledged as a substantial, valued use of the forest."

Access Fund and Carolina Climbers Coalition (CCC) have been working with the Forest Service on the revised management plan since 2013, and this new study will help show Forest Service staff the substantial economic impact that climbing contributes to the region’s economy. Access Fund and CCC are working closely with the Forest Service on climbing issues and policy related to trails and stewardship, sensitive plants and wildlife, and fixed anchors.

"Climbing has clearly grown in popularity in North Carolina, but the the economic data was missing,” says Lesch-Huie. “This new study fills a major hole in our advocacy work, and it will help forest planners and the wider community understand that climbing is not just a cool, fun thing to do, but that climbers are big contributors to the local and regional economy.”

The researchers found that rock climbers spend an estimated $13.9 million per year in and around NPNF, and that rock climber tourism supports the presence of 170 full-time jobs and $4 million in job income. They also determined that Western North Carolina residents spend an additional $12.9 million per year as a result of climbing in the NPNF.

Access Fund is a founding member of Outdoor Alliance, the national non-profit organization that unites the voices of outdoor enthusiasts to conserve public lands and ensure those lands are managed in a way that embraces the human-powered experience.

Review the climbing study in detail. Visit Outdoor Alliance for details on the other human-powered outdoor recreation studies in the region.