Coping with COVID — Outside

After COVID-19 hit the U.S., it became evident that TVA’s 11,000 miles of shoreline and numerous recreation areas were providing more than just economic benefits to the Valley.

September 4, 2020 -- TVA discovered some stunning news in 2017. It was the results of a study totaling the economic impact of recreation on the Tennessee River reservoir system.

Surveys were taken measuring the cost of items that tourists and locals purchased for their day on the lake from floaties to charcoal to boat rentals. It also included money that shoreline property owners had spent on their homes, such as marina fees and landscaping. The regional economic benefit turned out to be a staggering $12 billion annually, or $1 million per shoreline mile.

“We were wowed with those figures,” said Clay Guerry, TVA recreation strategy specialist. “They were exciting numbers that proved we were successfully carrying out the mandate of the TVA Act, ‘to make life better for the people of the Tennessee Valley’.

Recreation during COVID-19

When COVID-19 changed life as we know it, it quickly became obvious that public lands and waters were providing benefits to residents and visitors that had nothing to do with dollars.

“We realized that people saw public land as a sort of safe haven,” explained Guerry. “It was clear to us that it plays a major role in the health and wellbeing of people in the Valley.”

“Folks came out in droves, not only to use the water, but the hiking, biking, camping and picnic areas,” said Bucky Edmondson, director of TVA Natural Resources. “It was a boon for individuals in the Valley to realize they could stay close to home, practice social distancing and be surrounded by nature. Fortunately, many of them knew from experience that most TVA-managed areas would still be open, and at no cost to them.”

Measuring the value of time outdoors

That last statement raises a fascinating question for Guerry, who is not only interested in economic value but recreation value, as well. He wonders what TVA’s free, outdoor experiences are worth to the wellbeing of people in the Valley, most of whom are within just a few miles of these opportunities.

Guerry explains his question with an example. “If you’re heading out with your bike or kayak, you might pack a snack and burn a couple of dollars in gas getting to the water. So your economic impact on the region would be low. But what dollar value would you attach to paddling in a quiet cove, watching a heron catch his dinner, and maybe doing a little fishing yourself? What’s it worth to pedal to the top of a trail, snap some gorgeous sunset photos and cool off with a swim before heading home?”

It’s difficult to quantify, but several years ago, the U.S. Forest Service did a study to determine the value that people place on outdoor activities. This value is above what the person paid to enjoy the activity, such as for equipment, license, food or gas. Rounded to the nearest dollar, the study revealed that per person, the median value of fishing was $53, hiking, $47; non-motorized boating, $49; motorized boating, $20; picnicking, $24.

Health and medical experts have long known that being outdoors in nature has a beneficial effect on one’s physical and mental health. Perhaps being surrounded by many opportunities to paddle, fish, swim, bike and hike means the people of the Valley are getting a boost in stress reduction and in coping with quarantine conditions.

Deciding where to go and what is available when you get there has never been easier. First, narrow down your interests. Do you enjoy boating, fishing (cold or warm water - the Valley has both), hiking, or mountain biking? What about hunting, camping at campgrounds or on undeveloped recreation lands, wildlife viewing or volunteering?

Take your list and you’ll find the areas near you that offer these activities. If you live in the Tennessee Valley, go outside and discover the value in nature near you.