Summit County’s public lands draw more retirees than other Colorado counties |

Summit County’s public lands draw more retirees than other Colorado counties

Alli Langley
Gale Tuggle, right, and Mary Gilbert, left, charge forward on the Frisco Nordic Center course during a previous year's Summit County 50+ Winter Games. A new report shows more retirees are relocating to Summit County and other communities in the West, and they are three times more likely to move to places with protected public lands.
Stan Stansfield / Special to the Daily |

Is outdoor recreation the new gold and are seniors the new miners in the mountains?

A study released last week shows that retirees have been moving en masse to Summit County and other places around the West where they can spend time enjoying plentiful public lands.

The report released Wednesday, March 11, by the conservation advocacy group Center for Western Priorities shows that Summit is uniquely positioned among Colorado communities to attract seniors because of the three-quarters of the county’s land that is federally managed as national forest.

In comparison, the average Colorado county boasts just 8.3 percent of its land is federally protected, and the study says that difference translates to a drastic jump in seniors relocating to Summit over the rest of the state.

From 2000 to 2010, the senior migration rate for Summit was 11.2 percent, more than three times the state average of 3 percent, according to the report. That means that for every 100 seniors in Summit, 11 moved to the county in those 10 years.

At the same time, Summit saw a rise in a few related economic sectors.

Growth in dividends, interest and rent over that same time period was 43.3 percent for Summit County, compared to 6.3 percent for Colorado as a whole.

The study found Summit’s growth in aging-related payments, for Social Security and Medicare for example, was 116.2 percent compared to 50 percent statewide.

More seniors are retiring and looking for a sense of adventure when they relocate, said Maria Dwight, president and founder of Gerontological Services and an aging and retirement expert.

“They may not weigh the pros and cons in terms of days of sunshine or number of golf courses, but rather the number of hiking and biking trails, the opportunity for educational enrichment, and the caliber of the art and restaurant scene,” she said.

Between 2000 and 2010, about 500,000 seniors migrated into Western counties, both from outside of the Western U.S. and from other Western counties.

Seniors relocating in the West were three times more likely to settle in a county with more protected public lands than one with fewer protected lands.

Public opinion research by Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project determined that seniors in six Western states ranked “clean air, clean water and environment,” a “healthy, outdoor lifestyle,” and “ability to live near, recreate on and enjoy public lands like national parks and forests,” at the top of their list of reasons to live in the West.

These rank higher than factors commonly associated with retirement, including quality health care, taxes and economic opportunities.

The study says retirees who relocate are generally healthier, wealthier and better educated than retirees who plan to stay put.

Seniors moving often arrive at their new homes with disposable incomes after selling their residences in more expensive urban areas and choosing to resettle in rural, less expensive communities. They bring in accumulated wealth, investment income and aging-related payments.

This “non-labor income” is one of the fastest growing sources of income in the West, the report said, and investment incomes are more than twice as high in “high protected public lands counties” than in “low protected public lands counties.”

Similarly, aging-related payments are doubled in counties with more protected public lands.

“As baby boomers retire in large numbers, the communities and counties that can tout access to national parks, monuments and other protected lands will continue to reap the economic benefits of the migration of older Americans,” said Chris Mehl, policy director for Headwaters Economics, which helped produced the report.

According to the National Park Service, sales of America the Beautiful Senior Passes have spiked in recent years.

The $10 lifetime pass offers free admission to America’s public lands, including national parks, monuments and wildlife refuges for seniors over the age of 61. Between 2007 and 2014, the federal government sold 3.7 million Senior Passes, generating $37 million to enhance recreation experiences on public lands, and the pass sales are trending upward.

To continue attracting retirees and soon-to-be retirees who seek active aging, the center recommended that Western communities prioritize public land conservation, promote and market their public lands, and invest in retiree-friendly infrastructure like accessible trailheads and geriatric health centers.

“Every week an estimated 70,000 baby boomers reach retirement age,” said Greg Zimmerman, policy director at the Center for Western Priorities. “Communities that want to attract boomers entering their golden years and the job creation and spending power that they bring with them are wise to support efforts that protect our national public lands.”

For more information about the study and its methodology and to view case studies from Grand Junction and three other Western towns, visit

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.