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Fires Cool Recreation Business

Some outdoors companies see sales slump as blazes rage in U.S. parklands


This was supposed to be a bang-up summer for outdoor activity, with the economy still wobbly and many Americans opting to stick closer to home. National parks still are predicting a jump in attendance this year.

But the wildfires whipping through the nation's forests have begun to hurt sales at some recreation businesses, casting a cloud that could persist through the summer and fall as the threat of fires continues.

Known World Guide Service Inc. in Velarde, N.M., which arranges hiking and river rafting trips, said its revenue is down 70% this year. BSR Sport in Glenwood, Colo., which sells bikes and other sporting gear, is having its worst year ever. Outdoor equipment store Mountain Miser Ltd. in Englewood, Colo., has seen sales slide 6% so far this year, and owner David Goodman expects they'll fall further.

"I don't think anybody's going to be setting any records this year," he said.

Although it's too soon to determine the overall economic effect of the fires, the Outdoor Industry Assn. said sales are likely to suffer further if the fires keep raging--or if more crop up--prompting vacationers to change plans.

Weaker sales in areas near the fires, and the worries they are causing elsewhere--including among Southern California recreational equipment retailers--are particularly disappointing because they're coming at the peak of a key selling season for outdoor equipment companies.

Kent, Wash.-based Recreational Equipment Inc. generates about 25% of its annual sales from mid-May through mid-July, spokesman Mike Foley said. And REI's second-largest concentration of stores is in Colorado, where the season's worst fires have been.

"It's an important couple of weeks for us," Foley said.

Farther from the fires, some retailers are wary, partly because scant rainfall has left many of the West's most inviting areas vulnerable.

"What concerns us is it is so early in the season," said John Mead, president of San Diego-based Adventure 16 Inc. Sales have been flat so far this year for the company's five stores, all located in Southern California.

"We're hoping for the best," Mead said, "and preparing for the worst."

Wildfires can create a public-perception nightmare for businesses in this industry, making people less eager to venture into parklands, said Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the Outdoor Industry Assn., which has more than 4,000 members nationwide. For example, a large but isolated fire in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming a couple of years ago hurt outdoor equipment sales in Idaho and Montana, he said.

"You've got a lot more people in recreation areas struggling this year because of the drought," Hugelmeyer said. "We know there are about 250 small businesses in the Pike's Peak area [in Colorado] that are affected by the forest closure.

"A major threat that we were concerned about at the beginning of the year has become a reality," he added.

Some businesses in this industry have been optimistic partly because of the terrorism worries and other bad news over the last nine months.

When times get tough, people gravitate toward the great outdoors, hoping to soothe frazzled nerves by reconnecting with nature, industry insiders said.

A poll conducted by the Outdoor Industry Assn. in October showed that 91% of Americans older than 15 believed that national parks were the safest place for a getaway, Hugelmeyer said.

"In a way, the fires are [sending] a different message," he said. "When you see huge, 200-foot flames, you go, 'I'm going to bring my kids into that? You've got to be kidding.' "

But most of the nation's parklands are not ablaze, and most campgrounds remain open. Further, many retailers--especially those far removed from the fires--are feeling no effect. Some still predict a strong year.

Chamber of commerce groups highlight the bright side, because the prospect of fire in wooded areas is about as welcome as a shark at the beach.

But there is no question the fires have damped hopes for business owners in some areas, including where hope was most needed.

Small businesses surveyed in northern New Mexico, the part of the state hardest hit by the fires, said they expect sales to plummet more than 50% compared with last year, said Patrick Gannon, a representative for the New Mexico Economic Development Department. Gannon submitted that information to a state task force Friday in hopes of procuring low-interest federal loans for the businesses.

Debbie Katers, who owns BSR Sport in Colorado with her husband, Steve, said sales at the store still haven't bounced back from Sept. 11, partly because of a miserable snow season.

Located in a community that is dependent on tourism, BSR Sport caters largely to locals, who haven't been spending, she said.

"Everybody's so afraid to spend money because we just don't know what's going to happen," Katers said.

Making matters worse, June is when she has more bills than usual to pay, Katers said, because she recently stocked the store for the summer.

"This is the [month] that's supposed to take everybody out of the hole," she said.

Mountain Miser owner Goodman said profit should be better than last year, even if sales drop as much as 15%, as he predicts. That's because he trimmed costs after Sept. 11, including laying off two of the 10 workers in his store.

"I think if we can remain 10% to 15% down from last year, I would call that a pretty good year, based on the situation right now," he said.


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