Balancing Nature and Commerce in the Pennsylvania Wilds
A very rural landscape, the region encompasses a quarter of the state’s land area but only four percent of the its overall population.
In the past, the PA Wilds counties were divided in their approaches to economic development, and many of the region’s main attractions, such as elk watching, lacked the infrastructure — like public bathrooms, signage to guide visitors, or cell service — to support or encourage outdoor recreation and tourism.
In 2003, recognizing the recreational and tourism opportunities the PA Wilds had to offer, representatives from the region partnered with the state to form the PA Wilds Initiative to strategically grow the nature and heritage tourism industry on a regional level. PA Wilds partners focused on ensuring the stewardship for public lands, safeguarding the character of its communities, supporting local businesses and products and investing in infrastructure to enhance the visitor experience.
After attending our Conservation Leadership Network’s national Balancing Nature and Commerce course in 2007, representatives from the PA Wilds decided to convene a regional workshop focused on sustainable community development later that year. The place-based workshop more deeply engaged stakeholders from the region to find common priorities and take a collaborative approach to building outdoor recreation and natural and heritage tourism infrastructure. The eight geographically-based teams identified the area’s assets and identified how they could be strategically connected. For example, one team from McKean County developed a plan to connect their previously disconnected recreational trails, allowing all the communities along the trail to benefit from the resulting recreation revenue.
That's the big thing I got out of the [Balancing Nature and Commerce] retreat. I had the preconceived idea that the PA Wilds was just about tourism promotion. When I got there and they explained the mindset of the program, I was impressed. We are trying to improve these communities because we live here. We want to invite people up here to enjoy the things that we enjoy. It's not so much marketing it as a place to visit, but as a place to live. It has really strengthened the bonds between the communities up here. ... We knew we had to put aside our parochial interests about our individual communities and try to do something as a group.
—Joe DeMott, former McKean County Commissioner
The action plans that came out of the workshop addressed not only tourism, but also featured the arts and crafts of the region and how to use the region’s natural assets to support thriving economies and communities for those who called it home. PA Wilds partners have continued to build on these efforts by completing investments in destination facilities at state parks and forests in the region; establishing business development opportunities around PA Wilds branded merchandise and locally-crafted products (such as the PA Wilds Artisan Trail, which has grown into the regional, 250-member Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania); creating a youth entrepreneur curriculum; relaunching a regional marketing strategy; and promoting a broader conservation stewardship message.
WHY IT MATTERS
The PA Wilds has grown to be one of the largest and most successful rural regional branding efforts in the country, and continues to grow, with the region’s visitors spending an estimated $1.7 billion annually.
Between 2009 and 2014, visitor spending in the region grew an average of 33.7 percent; tourism employment grew 13.4 percent; and labor income from tourism jobs grew 26 percent. State and local taxes collected from tourism categories during this time grew 22.7 percent, and federal taxes collected grew 22.4 percent. Most recently, PA Wilds received the 2018 President’s Award from the Pennsylvania Parks and Forest Foundation for their success around protecting open space, conservation and outdoor recreation.
The Conservation Fund was instrumental in helping community leaders in the region assess how they might best take advantage of state investment in the PA Wilds initiative. It was an opportunity to build regional partnerships and focus the vision for local communities to leverage state resources and support in a way that was not possible before. The workshop brought together insightful speakers and resources that these communities would otherwise not have access to and were key to demonstrating that communities have a voice when it comes to community character protection.
—Meredith Hill, Director, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Watch this video to learn more about the effort's success: