Besides recreation, Bear Lake is an economic gem; can it keep its luster?

Locals hope the rising tide of boaters, beachgoers and second-home owners will recognize the lake’s value and advocate for its protection.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People recreate in the clear blue waters of Bear Lake at Rendezvous Beach on Thursday, June 30, 2022. A new study is out showing the economic contributions of Bear Lake, underscoring the need to keep the lake healthy.

Just as the communities around Bear Lake are ramping up for another busy summer season, a new report is out highlighting the lake’s economic value.

The lake spans two rural counties in two states — Idaho’s Bear Lake County to the north and Utah’s Rich County to the south. Last summer, that region saw around 1 million visits from tourists, who spent $48 million enjoying the lake’s vivid blue waters and sandy beaches along with the area’s famous raspberry shakes. Those visitors directly supported about 450 full- and part-time jobs.

Visitation to Bear Lake’s two state parks has grown exponentially in recent years, the report found, more than doubling since 2016. And while tourists flock to the lake from around the U.S., the vast majority of visitors (80%) come from Utah and Idaho.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Zipz eatery in Garden City draws a large crowd as Bear Lake lures visitors ahead of the July Fourth holiday.

“It was just nice to learn and have numbers to describe the love Utahns have for that lake,” said Lara Gale, a regional growth planning specialist with the Bear River Association of Governments. “It may not be an internationally known destination, but it’s ... an incredibly valuable asset for Utah families.”

The study counts a “visit” as one person spending either a day or night in the Bear Lake area, not the total number of people visiting, meaning it doesn’t distinguish between day-trippers and tourists staying for multiple days. Around 90% of visits occurred between June and September last year.

The Bear River Association of Governments commissioned the nonprofit Conservation Economics Institute to conduct the study, in partnership with the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund Board, the Idaho Department of Water Resources, and the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation.

Lake advocates also pushed for the review after Utah conducted similar economic valuations of the Great Salt Lake in 2012 and 2019. Those reports helped spur current efforts to save the Great Salt Lake from decline. Bear Lake is part of the Bear River Basin, the Great Salt Lake’s largest tributary.

“It started with just thinking about Bear Lake as the other major water body on the Bear River,” Gale said. “If we’re going to quantify the value of Great Salt Lake, we should probably do the same thing for the other major body of water.”

Why waves of visitors come to Bear Lake

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People recreate in the clear blue waters of Bear Lake on Thursday, June 30, 2022. A new study is out showing the economic contributions of Bear Lake, underscoring the need to keep the lake healthy.

Gale couldn’t pinpoint an exact reason for skyrocketing visitation in recent years but said booming population growth on the Wasatch Front could be a contributing factor.

Utah’s population is increasing, [and] millennials are having kids and wanting to take their kids on vacation,” she said. “It could [also] be there are more recreation opportunities [in the Bear Lake area] than there used to be in the past. There are more restaurants. Last year, they opened their first real grocery store” in Garden City.

The economic report also found a stunning rate of second-home ownership in recent years. From 2015 to 2019, 73% of the 3,000 housing units in Rich County were used seasonally instead of as primary residences. And a previous Envision Utah study found that while the population of Rich County held relatively steady between 1990 and 2010, its housing stock surged by 80%. Bear Lake County’s population has also changed little, but the number of homes there swelled by 40%.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homes hug the south shore of Bear Lake.

Area resident Claudia Cottle noted the boom in second-home building, combined with the rise of peer-to-peer rental websites like Airbnb and Vrbo, as key factors to the growing rates of visitation.

“Once the vacation rental thing hit the internet, it exploded,” said Cottle, a co-executive director of Bear Lake Watch. “The people who will invest in a property at Bear Lake [now] have the ability to have some of that investment paid back by this rental market.”

Cottle called that trend a “double-edged sword.” On the plus side, it has brought more amenities to the area and boosted property values. The economic study found the market value of second homes around Bear Lake soared from $284 million in 2015 to $606 million in 2021. The value of primary residential homes grew from $45 million to $71 million over the same period.

“We have more Bear Lakers now, and that’s good,” Cottle said. “The downside to that is, I think we have fewer people who have taken ownership. ... They’re here to play, not to understand the problems, the impacts, why Bear Lake is used the way it is.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People visit Garden City next to the west shore of the lake.

About the lake

Bear Lake is an ancient lake, one of the oldest in North America. Since the last major ice age, it has sat in a topographically closed basin, much like the Great Salt Lake, with water leaving only through evaporation.

But, in 1911, an electricity company dug a canal and diverted almost the entire flow of the Bear River into Bear Lake, essentially turning the lake into a reservoir for hydropower and farmland irrigation. That has caused an inflow of sediment to the lake, along with fluctuating levels that impact beaches and fish habitat.

Longtime residents of the region grew alarmed as they watch those changes, forming Bear Lake Watch to help advocate for the lake’s health. Cottle and other members of the group also lobbied for the recent economic study to help shine a light on Bear Lake’s importance.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A dock sits idle far from the shore.

“It’s a big step toward guiding our state policies,” Cottle said. “We’ve learned from neglect at Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake that it’s costly to repair.”

Beyond lawmakers and policymakers, Cottle said, she hopes the new report will also help the influx of boaters, beachgoers and second-home owners recognize Bear Lake as more than just a playground.

“They are its owners — it’s under the public’s domain and should be managed for their benefit,” she said. “It’s a matter of being able to connect with people and translate that love they have for Bear Lake into a real understanding.”