Study shows rural ‘recreation counties’ holding population

Paddle boarders navigate the Pennington Pit at the Cuyuna State Recreational Area near the twin towns of Crosby and Ironton, Minnesota. (Aaron J. Brown)

In real terms, the biggest factor in most of the challenges facing Iron Range communities is population loss. The economic contraction of the late 1950s and 1980s sent people away from core Range communities. This impacted local businesses, school enrollments, housing values, and myriad other issues.

There are other factors, more to consider, but basically the best way to assess community success is the stability and satisfaction of its population.

Though some Iron Range towns struggle, Northern Minnesota as a whole fared better than most of rural America. And one new study suggests why. Rural places with a recreation economy have proven more resilient to population loss than rural places that don’t have as many recreational opportunities.

Bryce Oates penned a story for The Daily Yonder this month detailing the population analysis study by Headwaters Economics.

“Rural places’ struggle since the recession with population loss, job loss, and growing economic distress have been well-documented,” wrote Megan Lawson, an economist with Headwaters Economics and author of the report. “This study finds that recreation may make the difference between gaining or losing population, particularly in rural counties.” 

During the economic recovery period in the study, 72% of rural counties experienced “negative migration,” meaning more people moved away than moved into the county. The average rural county lost 16.4 residents per 1,000 people to negative migration. Metropolitan counties, on the other hand, gained an average of 15.9 residents per thousand.  

The study also examines incomes for families that move to rural counties. New residents in rural recreation counties saw significantly greater incomes ($48,828 per household) than non-recreation rural counties ($36,550).  

But rural counties with a strong recreation economy experienced a gain of 1.3 people per 1,000 residents. Non-recreation rural counties saw an average of 20 people move away per 1,000 residents.

No, recreation doesn’t fix everything, but it attracts people who can.

We need more people. Existing Iron Rangers literally can’t reproduce fast enough to preserve some imagined vestige of our past economy. (That doesn’t mean you can’t try). Recreation attracts people. Complacency and “you ain’t from around here” does not.


  1. Another population to consider attracting: retirees who buy homes, contribute to the property tax base and have time to volunteer. We retired to a recreational-economy outstate Minnesota area and love the lower-key lifestyle. (We also learned how to time summertime grocery store trips to dodge the tourists!)

  2. The message is that people need reasons to want to move somewhere. Economic vitality is important for that — see California and Texas, — but attractiveness is important too — see California, Florida, Vermont, Washington, and Oregon. North Dakota’s oil patch is a good example of an area that fills up when the jobs are there, but empties during slack times because no one really wants to live there.

    “Packaging” and promotion are important too. IMO, some of the message arguing that mining is the main future up here actually works against us, because the image of being mainly mining area is not attractive to many outsiders. West Virginia is beautiful too, but its image is terrible in most people’s minds.

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