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Know the West

Even unpopular national parks are economic engines


Last summer, I visited Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time and, to be frank, was a little disgusted. Not by the park itself – the mountains were beautiful, even if the beetle-kill and $20 backcountry permits were disheartening – but by the salt-water-taffy-munching, airbrushed-tee-shirt-wearing crowd glutting the park’s gateway community of Estes Park, Colo., turning it into a kind of Jersey Shore of the Rockies.

Yet by the estimation of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Rocky Mountain National Park is one of our country’s “real treasures.” Alaska’s Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and 133 other little-visited parks? Not so much.

Bison watching in Yellowstone. Courtesy Flickr user brian.gratwicke

Coburn’s determination of what constitutes a “real treasure” stems from his calculation of how much federal money is spent on each park visitor, leading to the conclusion that less popular parks, like Yukon-Charley, drain taxpayer resources and siphon money away from pressing maintenance at world-famous destinations like the Grand Canyon. Coburn’s report of wasted money and “misplaced priorities” in the Park Service, released last fall, laid out a kind of national-park popularity contest in which the only good ones are those making the most money. It also outlined ways to increase profitability, such as by raising senior citizens’ fees.

Yet two reports released this week by the Interior Department suggest that all parks are economic drivers, even the less popular ones. The first report, a breakdown of the economic impact of national parks in 2012, found that visitor numbers were up by 3.9 million from the previous year, to a total of 282.8 million. Visitors spent $14.7 billion in gateway communities like Estes Park, and supported 243,000 jobs – mostly in hotels, restaurants and bars.

Perhaps more striking, though, is what happens without national parks, as illustrated by the second report’s evaluation of last fall’s government shutdown. Roughly 7.88 million people were turned away during the 16-day period when the country’s 401 parks and historical sites barricaded their entrances, resulting in a $414 million loss in tourist spending.

The biggest losers were Tennessee and North Carolina, where fall foliage was at its peak, but the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Rocky Mountain national parks were also among the 10 worst-hit. California alone lost $30 million in projected revenue.

For states like Utah, Arizona and Colorado that scrambled to come up with funding to keep some of their parks open, the investment paid off. Every $1 spent by states generated $10 in visitor spending. That means Utah – which ponied up a total of $999,000 to keep its eight national parks open for six days – got a $9.95 million return. It also got the everlasting gratitude of Grand Canyon river runners who had been waiting anxiously for their launch date in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, wondering if they’d be allowed to make the trip that some had been planning for a decade or more.

The spending report also adopts a more “accurate and transparent” model for calculating parks’ economic impact. It accounts for the indirect ripple effects of tourist spending, broadens the definition of “gateway regions,” and better distills park visitors’ spending from overall tourist spending in urban regions.

The Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, one of Alaska's scarcely-visited parks. Photo courtesy NPS / Josh Spice

The new model puts a different spin on the numbers. For instance, visitor spending related to Alaska’s national parks leapt from $237 million in 2011 to $1.1 billion in 2012, a jump that Interior Department officials call “warranted” because it includes things like car rentals and plane tickets paid for in Anchorage that weren’t previously accounted for. The figures ought to please number-crunchers like Coburn, but to the lonely 1,393 people who set foot in the 2.5 million-acre Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve last year, the value of their experience is likely not calculable in financial terms.

As one visitor put it, “In this land, wildlife is at home on the landscape, not a novelty for gaping tourists.”

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.