(July 2003) Places that offer leisure opportunities near lakes, mountains, valleys, and scenic landscapes are attracting large numbers of migrants. Population gains in such areas exceed the national average by more than 50 percent between 1990 and 2000 and growth is continuing, according to a study conducted by demographers Kenneth M. Johnson, Loyola University–Chicago and Calvin Beale, Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other government sources, Johnson and Beale found that there are 330 nonmetropolitan counties with large concentrations of recreational activity (see map).

Key findings from their study include:

  • Recreational counties are among the fastest-growing U.S. counties. These counties grew by 20 percent in the 1990s, compared to a national growth rate of 13 percent. Population estimates from 2002 show this growth is continuing.
  • Net migration is fueling most of this growth. Nearly 83 percent of the population gain in recreational counties was from migration. Many people are moving into these areas and few are leaving.
  • Recreation counties are particularly attractive to migrants in their 50s and 60s. Johnson and Beale’s analysis shows the appeal to this age group is increasing. Baby boomers are now swelling the over-50 ranks, so the potential for future growth in these counties is substantial.
  • This population increase in recreational areas has significant implications. Population growth increases economic, employment, and social opportunities. But it also fuels sprawl and may adversely impact the natural environment (forests, lakes, air and water quality, scenic vistas) that make the areas attractive.

A more complete summary of this study is on the website of the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Nonmetro Recreation Counties: Their Identification and Rapid Growth” www.ers.usda.gov/publications/ruralamerica/ra174/ra174b.pdf (PDF: 438KB).