A press release from the Department of Interior last week held some of the best news in recent years for sportsmen–and the quality of life of all Americans: After decades of steady declines, the number of hunters and anglers in the U.S. showed significant increases over the last five years.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation showed the number hunters and anglers increased 9 and 11 percent respectively, part of the 38 percent of all Americans who participated in wildlife-related recreation. That was an increase of 2.6 million participants from the previous survey in 2006. A Service spokesperson said the survey, which has been done every five years since 1955, last showed an increase was in the late the 1980s — which means we’ve halted a 30-year slide.

That’s good news for sportsmen for many reasons:

– It increases the lobbying power we can muster in the Washington, where many in Congress are attempting to shut down the conservation programs and environmental regulations essential to maintaining the habitat base that supports public hunting and fishing.

– That crowd has been claiming the nation can’t afford the programs, and the regs are hurting the economy. The outdoors sector has fought back, showing the programs and regs support a $9 billion industry that hires some 12 million people.

Now these new figures show outdoors is a growth industry – at a time when many others are declining.

– Outdoor enthusiasts have long paid the bills for fish and wildlife habitat conservation and protection. When our numbers decline, the agencies that manage these resources have less funding to do their jobs.

– As the report points out, outdoor recreationists “spent $145 billion on related gear, trips and other purchases, such as licenses, tags and land leasing and ownership, representing 1 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.”

So why is this good news for the rest of America?

For that last reason above.

Outdoor recreationists–led by hunters and anglers–have long paid the bills for conservation of the nation’s fish, wildlife and public lands. The wetlands, woodlands, watersheds and coasts we have protected and enhanced add to a healthier and better quality of life for all Americans.

Other key findings of the report include:

– In 2011, 13.7 million people, 6 percent of the U.S. population 16 years old and older, went hunting. They spent $34.0 billion on trips, equipment, licenses, and other items in 2011, an average of $2,484 per hunter.

– More than 33 million people 16 and older fished in 2011, spending $41.8 billion on trips, equipment, licenses, and other items, an average of $1,262 per angler.

– More than 71 million people engaged in wildlife watching in 2011, spending $55 billion on their activities.