Study: national parks generate billions in economic activity

A park ranger at work.

Credit: flickr, National Park Service.

A new study shows that national parks are a vital economic engine, generating billions for neighboring communities. Underscoring this value, the agency that manages them announced that the 2013 government shutdown cost those same areas $414 million.

The study, a version of which is released by the National Park Service each year, quantified the value of visitors drawn by parks at nearly $26.8 billion in economic activity and more than 242,000 jobs supported in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available. It also found that national parks return $10 in value for every $1 American taxpayers invest in them

Key findings in the report:

  • 282.8 million people visited national parks, up by nearly 4 million over 2011.
  • These visitors contributed almost $26.8 billion to the national economy.
  • Nationally, spending by national park visitors contributed more than 242,000 jobs to the economy.
  • In “gateway communities”—those within 60 miles of a national park—national park visitors spent a total of $14.7 billion, directly supporting more than 147,000 jobs (and indirectly supporting another 54,000).

While this year’s study made use of new, more accurate models, its conclusions were similar to those of previous editions. A National Park Service analysis released in February 2013 found that visitors generated $30.1 billion in economic activity and supported 252,000 jobs.

National parks return $10 in value for every $1 American taxpayers invest in them.

Shenandoah National Park (Virginia). Credit: flickr, Shenandoah National Park.

Driving home the value of national parks, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis separately announced that the 2013 government shutdown, which held public lands hostage for 16 days, resulted in almost 8 million fewer national park visitors than usual and cost local communities about $414 million in visitor spending.

Important, yet underfunded and struggling

Despite their importance, national parks are still chronically underfunded. The budget to operate parks has been cut by more than 7%, $180 million in today’s dollars, compared to four years ago. The National Park Service has been forced to cut staff, close parks and carry a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog.

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Other types of public lands contribute mightily to the economy too

 A July 2013 study found that visitors to public lands managed by the Department of the Interior--which includes the National Park Service and other agencies--supported over 372,000 jobs and contributed $45 billion to the economy. A recent study showed that a potential national monument encompassing New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks will generate $7.4 million in economic activity annually.

People recognize that value, too. The 2013 edition of the State of the Rockies survey found that a strong majority of respondents in western states considered public lands  an essential part of their states’ respective economies, and rejected proposals to sell off public lands. More broadly, a 2012 report from the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group, found that Americans spend $646 billion on outdoor recreation annually, supporting about 6.1 million jobs. 

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