National Parks Generate Billions In Economic Activity

How far the national parks have come, from being described in the 19th century as unproductive wastelands in order to gain congressional approval to now being described as economic engines that are behind nearly $27 billion in business.

Within hours Monday of releasing a report on the value of parks to their surrounding communities in 2012 -- "... our national parks help propel our nation’s economy, drawing hundreds of millions of visitors every year who are the lifeblood of the hotels, restaurants, outfitters, and other local businesses that depend on a vibrant and reliable tourism and outdoor recreation industry supported by our public lands," pointed out Interior Secretary Sally Jewell -- the Internet was flush with links to news stories from across the nation regurgitating the report's findings.

Individual parks also sent out releases to proclaim the economic engines they were:

Tourism to Shenandoah National Park creates $76 million in Economic Benefit

Tourism to Olympic National Park Creates $220 Million in Economic Benefit; Report shows visitor spending supports 2,700 jobs in local economy

James A. Garfield National Historic Site Creates $1.1 Million in Local Economic Benefit

Glacier Creates $172 Million In Economic Benefit

Grand Teton National Park & John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway Generate Nearly $492 Million in Economic Benefit through Global Tourism

Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park Creates $113,376,400 in Local Economic Benefit

In total, the National Park System in 2012 was behind $26.75 billion in economic activity, Secretary Jewel and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said during a joint telephone conference call with reporters. Accompanying that sum were more than 220,000 jobs, they added. (In a change from previous economic reports, the Park Service in the 2012 analysis expanded the economic footprint to include communities within 60 miles of a park.)

To further highlight the value of the parks, the two pointed to the shutdown last October of most national parks that resulted from a congressional impasse on the federal budget.

"Overall, the16-day shutdown resulted in 7.88 million fewer national park visitors in October 2013 compared to a three-year average (October 2010-12), and an estimated loss of $414 million in visitor spending in gateway and local communities across the country when comparing October 2013 to a three-year average (October 2010-12)," an Interior Department release said.

(You can find the economic impact report here, and a report on the effects of the 2013 shutdown in October here.)

The greatest individual economic engine in the park system in 2012 was the 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway, which was said to generate $902.5 million. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Saint Croix Island International Historic Site, a 45-acre island in the Saint Croix River on the Maine-Canadian border that interprets the "attempted French settlement of 1604, which led to the founding of New France," had no economic impact.


I think the word "creates" is probably a misnomer here. It implies that if these parks didn't exist, people would not spend that money. The reality is that people vacation and recreate. If these parks weren't there, much of this money would be spent elsewhere. No doubt, these parks are additive to their local communities but they are far less additive to the overall economy than these promotional reports suggest. BTW - it doesn't make the parks any less valuable but I don't think one should mislead the public to promote their cause.
Thanks for sharing the numbers. To add to the list, I just received an email that National Park of American Samoa brought in $582,600 last year. Happy to say I contributed to that number. Most of the people we ran into in the park were foreigners, and if it weren't for the national park, they would have--to the person--bypassed AmSam completely and moved on to another Pacific island, spending their money in another country. (I know that the pile of money I spent getting there would have otherwise sat in my bank account.) I meet quite a few foreigners in the parks who come to America solely for the parks. This influx of money, along with the domestic economic ACTIVITY generated by the parks, is a nice sign.
Justin points out an important factor that some who rank dollars as more important than parks miss. Go to virtually any U.S. national park and listen to the cacophony of languages. Those visitors from other nations probably wouldn't be here if it were not for national parks. Although their pockets may normally be filled with Yen, or Marks, or Schillings or whatever, when they convert their own script into dollars it's really far more additive not only to the local economy, but the economy of the U.S. as well. Will they continue to come to visit if we allow our parks to become messed up by uncontrolled pursuit of wealth?
The study must be wrong. In October 2012 we toured New England and made the detour to St. Croix Island NHS while being on the way from Acadia NP to Fundy NP. Certainly we spent some money in the Calais region, at least some gas fuel! ;)
[quote]Those visitors from other nations probably wouldn't be here if it were not for national parks. [/quote] Doubtful.
To be more specific to the question, most of those foreign visitors may well be in the US, but would not be in Cody or Orick or Skagway were it not for the national parks.And it is to those local communities the report is speaking.

I'm with ec on this PR offensive being misleading. The NPS press releases imply all that economic benefit is due to the NPS 'brand', but some, perhaps many, people would still visit most sites regardless of the managing agency. A truer accounting would also discount the roughly $4B 'overhead' annual cost of NPS management from their $27B 'activity' figure.

I strongly agree with Lee's last sentence, but it appears to me that the top-heavy NPS management has also "become messed up by uncontrolled pursuit of... " MORE, if not exactly wealth.

Rick has it right. Are you trying to claim, ec, that thousands upon thousands of Germans, French, Japanese, Korean, Dutch and British people would travel to the southwest corner of Utah or to Moab or to Loa or Bicknell if Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and those other "worthless" places were not there? Your claim is, at best, undoubtably doubtful. I have to agree with part of Tahoma's posting. But I still wonder how much of what he cites is due to Congressional response to political interest groups that stand to benefit from NPS areas?
[quote]Your claim is, at best, undoubtably doubtful.[/quote] Well if that were my claim it would be doubtful, but that isn't my claim. My claim is that most of these people come to the US for many reasons, not just to visit the parks. If the parks weren't here they would probably still come and probably spend the same amount of money - if not more. Yes the parks may benefit the gateway communities (as I indicated in my initial post) but their additive effect to the overall US economy is questionable.
[quote]And it is to those local communities the report is speaking.[/quote] No Rick, the report is trying to create the impression that the parks are creating/generating this activity and that this $27 billion in activity wouldn't exist without the parks. Its an attempt to sway additional investments in the parks using the false impression that there is an incremental return of substantial scope. As I said in my first post, people vacation and recreate with or without the parks. Most of this money would be spent anyway.
The apparent lack of understanding of the "Velocity" of money amazes me. All spending has an additive impact on the economy as it moves the money faster through the economy. Claiming that people might spend as much if not more if not for the parks is a false argument as there is no actual evidence of this other than personal opinion. So unless someone has some insight on the speed of consumer spending that nobody else here can find, can we put this to rest.
I kind of sit in the middle on this one. I think it is good for the NPS to try and get news press about the dollars that are generated from these National Park communities. Maybe congress notices and helps fix the backlog of maintenance. I truly feel that people will spend money to recreate with or without the parks as ec said. But their are some like me that plan vacations around places that do have National Park in the title. So call it propaganda or lobbying, hopefully it will get noticed by the right people in congress.
It is sort of sadly amusing and absurd to see those who care only - or mostly, to be generous - about the glory of the profit motive to create a situation where reports like this are viewed as necessary, and then to have them pooh pooh the reports when they come out. Kobayashi maru indeed.
Kobayashi maru ? I got that one with no need for google --Midshipman Kirk's no win situation that he went to great lengths to make a winning situation.
Paul Choosing between Disneyworld and a National Park does not have an additive impact. It has nothing to do with velocity of money. For Rick, I don't know that anyone deemed this report "necessary", certainly not me and if the report engages in bogus methodology and/or analysis then it deserves to be pooh poohed. Its blind acceptance of such shoddy work that leads so many to be so misled on so many issues. Its embarrassing that so many of you do so so willingly.
Interesting discussion. Some NPS areas were designed and built, "Steamtown" comes to mind, primarily to rejuvenate the local community. A complex issue at best with many variables. One additional comment, in many rural areas where Parks are located and the Park itself has major concession development, local government entities also are financially affected. Here in Mariposa County, one of five counties surrounding Yosemite National Park, the county itself derives over 60% of their discretionary budget income from the bed taxes levied against the park concessionaire.
No one, or at least not me, is arguing that a park doesn't have have positive impact on the local community. The question is it additive to the overall economy. Perhaps some, but to in essence suggest that every dollar spent within 60 miles of a park are dollars that wouldn't have otherwise been spent is just absurd.
"If" this, "in essence" that - that's a lot of conjecture and wild-ass-guessing, that you then go on to act as if you've actually proven those things and try to sell it as fact. That's the sort of thing that Wall Street did that crashed the economy.
EC Buck is correct. This big NPS PR blitz was capped off the other day when Jewell came to the Smokies and dayhiked a trail rehabbed by volunteer monies. She and local fraud and Senator Lamar Alexander grandstanded before a room of carefully chosen syncophants to tout the benefit of economic partnerships with the park, eg concessionaires. (There is a growing controversy here about the park's plan to build new horse stables in Smokemont so they need to stack the deck in order to divert more taxpayer money to do so.) One story that didn't get covered by the pro park local media was that when Sen. Alexander's entourage pulled into the Marathon gas station in Townsend following that dog and pony show, he was refused service because of his support of the backcountry fee and recent vote to reduce veteran's benefits by store manager, Col Paul Sprayberry. The backcountry fee reduced visitation to the backcountry by %30 and I suppose he voted with his finger as he gave the senator a one digit salute and told him to buy his gas elsewhere.

While we may quibble about the accuracy of the stated numbers, there seems to be general agreement that parks bring dollars into local economies. Local business interests and politicians must agree, based on the continuing clamor to add new areas to the NPS, and "upgrade" existing ones to "full national park status" so they'll draw even more tourists to the area.

Largely overlooked in the discussion is the fact that the NPS feels compelled to issue such reports at all, which seem to be spurred primarily by the intense competition among federal agencies for appropriated funds.

It's unfortunate that the value of places like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Glacier can be justified in so many minds only in terms of how much they can add to the GNP. These days, it's apparently no longer sufficient to show that parks "produce" enough economic benefit to justify their existence; now the pressure is on to show an increasingly positive cost-benefit ratio—and hence we get reports like the ones under discussion.

[quote]here seems to be general agreement that parks bring dollars into local economies.[/quote] And nobody is saying anything otherwise here. Unfortunately, they take them away from other economies. [quote]NPS feels compelled to issue such reports at all, which seem to be spurred primarily by the intense competition among federal agencies for appropriated funds.[/quote] Feeling "compelled" is not a good reason to mislead the public. But at least you see that the purpose of the report is to lobby for Fed dollars. Rick B is too blinded by his Wall Street fantasy that he can't see that nor does he understand it was government interference in the markets not Wall Street, that crashed the economy. Perhaps he should go back to his library job and read a few books. He could start with The Great American Bank Robbery.
Ec, am familiar with Mr. Paul Sperry, he is a conservative pundit, investigative journalist for the New York Post and Stanford University Hoover Institute Media fellow. He strongly favors the neo-liberalism viewpoint, hey thats OK, thats his thing. On the other hand Andrew Sorkin, "To Big To Fail" is an interesting read and presents another viewpoint. Further an excellent article in this weeks "Nation" magazine on the Federal Reserve is worth reading. There all those that feel exactly the opposite of your statement that it was governmental interference, not Wall Street, that crashed the economy. All this off topic "Traveler", please excuse.
Don't see where reading a book will change a lot of attitudes, EC. Opening a lemonade stand when a person is 8 years would be a good primer. Lots of people supporting the Parks have the money to support them through industriousness and Capitalism. So much judgement nowadays. Guess the politicos like it.
Agreed, Jim. From the article's opening statement--"from being described in the 19th century as unproductive wastelands in order to gain congressional approval"--to Rep. Hastings's infamous comment that the parks aren't "moneymakers," there is an abiding and unfortunate critique that parks must produce economic activity in order to be of value.

Unfortunately, they take them away from other economies.(referring to money generated for local economies by park visitors)

Not sure I follow that logic, or see how it's a problem. Sounds like a value judgment that money spent by park visitors at a local motel, restaurant or canoe outfitter would be better spent elsewhere.

Feeling "compelled" is not a good reason to mislead the public.

You can question the numbers cited, but until someone provides hard evidence based on similar studies that the numbers are wrong, we're just bouncing opinions back and forth. Are the numbers overstated? Perhaps. I'm not an economist or a statistician, so I don't know, but I think "mislead the public" is a bit of a reach. Frankly, I tend to be a bit skeptical of all such studies that tout the economic impact of any activity, whether it be a bicycle race, a winter olympics, a Super Bowl or pick you own favorite "economic engine."

Thank you justinh and Jim, I also agree.
[quote]Sounds like a value judgment that money spent by park visitors at a local motel, restaurant or canoe outfitter would be better spent elsewhere.[/quote] Not at all Jim. I am not making a value judgement between the two. I am just pointing out that that it is largely a zero sum game. In simplest terms, I decide to take a vacation and budget $2,000. I could go to Disneyland or to a National Park. If there were no NP, I would go to Disneyland and spend $2,000 there. If there is a NP I could still decide to go to Disneyland and spend the $2,000. Or I might go the the National Park. NP area gains 2 grand but the Disneyland area loses it. The NP didn't create $2,000 of activity, my decision to vacation did and the money would have been spent whether there was a NP or not.
rmackie. No Community Reinvestment Act, no Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac, no Janet Reno suing banks for not making loans to people that couldn't afford them and the bubble and subsequent crash never would have happened.

ec - Your zero sum theory is an interesting one; it presumes that people are determined to spend a set amount on a vacation, and if one destination isn't available, they'll just find another place to spend the same amount. Perhaps so, maybe not. (You also suggest that people base their vacation spending on what they've budgeted for a trip. If that were the case, the credit card industry would be in trouble :-)

We can have fun speculating about such things, but it would be just that. I'd suggest, however, that an unknown percentage of visitors are willing to travel farther and therefore spend more to get to and enjoy a premier location such as Grand Canyon or Glacier NP. I was willing to shell out the dollars a few years ago to visit places like Denali and Glacier Bay because I was convinced the quality of the experience would be worth it. Had those parks not been there, would I have ventured to Alaska anyway? Probably not. I would have stayed a lot closer to home...and spent a lot less. The balance would have stayed in my savings account.

The previously cited examples of foreign visitors at our national parks are a good example. Would all of those people come to the U. S. anyway, or stayed as many days, even if we had no national parks like Grand Canyon or Yosemite? Who knows. Perhaps someone has done a study on that question :-)

[quote] Perhaps someone has done a study on that question [/quote] But certainly not the NPS. Is there some incremental spending? Perhaps. But to claim it has "created" or "generated" the whole pie is just nonsense.
I agree (once again), Jim. My experience at NPAS (described in my first post) is similar to yours with Alaska. This summer, I have a conference at the University of Minnesota. Afterward, I'm heading up to Voyageurs NP, and I'll need a packraft, which will run me about $2000. This money would otherwise have stayed in my savings account. I'm certainly not looking for a reason to spend an extra $2000. Simply because I have money doesn't mean I'm going to spend it. (Not to mention that, without the park there, I would have simply turned around after the conference and come home.)
I've worked for the past 50 years and enjoy the fruits of my labor as much as the next fellow. Hell, I was even a conservative activist for some years, saw greed up close and personal, but decided to get out and grow a conscience instead. It is when pure selfishness is disguised in Randian rhetoric that this entire nonsense about the parks having to justify their existence in terms of dollars arises. When I went through Saugus Iron Works NHP and learned about that portion of our history, that had value. When I stand on Mt Rainier and look in any direction, that has value. When I see an immense bison stroll past in Yellowstone NP, that has value. I believe our nation must invest in those things that do NOT return a dollar value, in those things that may have intangible but valued return. It must preserve it's history, both natural and cultural. And in this I cannot cite a specific reference, I cannot quote numbers or dollars, I cannot comply with any of the cute little quirks of online debate patter. I merely state that it is my opinion, and do believe that there are others who share that opinion.
Believe it or not Rick, I don't believe parks need to justify themselves in terms of dollars either and I think they do themselves a disservice trying (falsely) to make that argument.
May I first begin by saying that this is my first time posting on the traveler. I am a Recreation, Parks and Tourism college senior and have found the information and opinions here to be extremely informative and helpful. I wholeheartedly agree with ecbuck's comment "I don't believe parks need to justify themselves in terms of dollars either and I think they do themselves a disservice trying (falsely) to make that argument." National parks were created for the human enjoyment and recreation, conservation and preservation of wildlife and ecosystems. They are not, and never have been, solely "economic engines" for raising money for the government. I liken this situation to preventative medicine. Preventing illness saves billions of dollars, but the point is really to improve peoples lives and health, not to save money. But unfortunately it seems as though our "broke" government has to financially justify everything they spend money on, mostly to themselves, but also to those who don't want their tax dollars going to parks (just tanks and guns). In regards to the cost of the government shutdown, I believe that the shutdown hurt concessionaires and local communities much more than the government. My husband and I work for a NPS concessionaire and strongly felt the impacts of that shutdown. It was worse, though, for the communities surrounding Yosemite, getting dealt a double blow of a shutdown and a massive wildfire. The politicians in Washington that caused the shutdown still received their salaries but we did not.
Reading Rick B's post from 1:14 on March 5 made me stop and think. There certainly are values -- often very valuable values -- that simply cannot be quantified in terms of dollars. Other than the cost of its real estate, does a church have any values that are quantifiable in dollars? Whether or not a person is religious, most agree that there is something inside each of us that, while not anything we can exactly define or measure, is there. Something we call "spirit" or "spiritual." Most people I know feel that whatever that thing that dwells deep inside our hearts and minds may be, and even though we can't put a price tag on it, it is still something very, very precious. To me, a park can be far more valuable in spirit than any amount of gold or silver could ever be. Gold and silver will soon be gone. But the memory of the feeling deep within me after having witnessed something that cannot be expressed monetarily, will be with me forever.
Agreed, Lee (and Rick). I'd add that these are values that can define the nation and distinguish it from both the state and global capitalism.
Lord knows, everyone confuses nations with "global capitalism".
Just when I'd concluded this had become yet another completely worthless, tiresome political thread, THANK YOU Rick B. for reminding us that we visit this site because it purports to be about... our NATIONAL PARKS!
Rod, Could you identify at what point this became a "political thread"?
[that's a soft lob over the net]
Sure is. And if Rod tells the truth, you better be ducking.
Ducking? Are you making a personal threat? No matter if you or he or anyone else in an online discussion likes or dislikes me, my quality of life is not affected. Let's get back to talking about the parks.
March 5, 2014 - 10:42am.
RickB, speaking of National parks that generate a great deal of money for gateway communities, the county and state tourism industry, and national for that matter, I did attend a two hour meeting in Yosemite National Park, Thursday, where the Merced River Plan Final Environmental Impact Statement was presented, all 3000 plus pages. I thought the meeting started off well with an overview of the plan, and some of the unknowns that still exist due to funding, native american issues, bidding of a new concessionaire contract, etc, but the session went a little downhill when the question period required a written question be submitted, then read by a moderator in the back of the room that all had trouble hearing, and to make it even more disconcerting, it was being rushed by both the moderator and the person trying to answer the questions. In any case I believe the staff saw things were not working to well, and stopped the read questions portion of the program to allow a few comments. After 3 comments, the whole meeting was abruptly ended, a 1/2 hour early. I do think an opportunity was missed here and left a disappointing feeling with some 60 to 70 people in attendance, many who had driven quite a distance to be there. In fairness, the Park staff deserves many kudos for completing the MRP and I am sure they are "planned out" up to their eyeballs. I truly hope the park will get some support in implementing many of the changes called for in the document. The last major planning effort of this magnitude in Yosemite, the 1980 General Management Plan, was signed, printed, place in staff offices and basically collected dust for 27 years until the post 1997 flood recovery planning effort began. I am not optimistic at this point, but I do feel a lot of support for the efforts made by the Park in this planning document.
That's unfortunate meeting presentation and management skills being displayed. Makes the hard work disappear behind the disappointment.
Try again Lee March 4, 2014 - 11:46pm. That's what took this off on the tangent. And BTW, I took my discussion with rmackie off line to prevent the thread from digressing and we had a very civil and informative exchange. And no Rick, that was not a personal threat. That was an extension of your metaphor. When someone throws up a lob, they generally get the ball smashed back at them.