National Park Service Promotes Parks As Economic Engines

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National parks generated $26.5 billion in economic activity last year. Zion National Park contributed $185.5 million/Deby Dixon photo of Zion Canyon

"This property is of no value to the Government."

"...if it cannot be occupied and cultivated, why should we make a public park of it? If it cannot be occupied by man, why protect it from occupation? I see no reason in that."

How times have changed.

Those two statements, the first from U.S. Sen. John Conness in 1864 as he urged the chamber to protect the Yosemite Valley, and the second from Sen. Cornelius Cole in 1872 in opposing legislation to create Yellowstone National Park, painted two of the more glorious units of today's National Park System as worthless tracts of land. Today they are viewed as part of a $26.5 billion economic engine that supports 240,000 jobs and countless businesses, large and small.

While Sen. Conness had to persuade his colleagues that Yosemite was worthless, and Sen. Cole believed Yellowstone to be worthless, today the National Park Service points to the economic worth of the parks.

“National parks are often the primary economic engines of many park gateway communities,” Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said last week in announcing the fiscal impacts of the park system. “While park rangers provide interpretation of the iconic natural, cultural and historic landscapes, nearby communities provide our visitors with services that support hundreds of thousands of mostly local jobs.

"... The big picture of national parks and their importance to the economy is clear,” the director added. “Every tax dollar invested in the National Park Service returns $10 to the U.S. economy because of visitor spending in gateway communities near the 401 parks of the National Park System.”

Lodging is the biggest business in the park system, generating $4.4 billion in economic activity last year, notes the report, 2013 National Park Visitor Spending Effects, Economic Contributions to Local Communities, States, and the Nation. Next in line, not too surprisingly, is dining and drinking (yes, bar drinking), which contributed $2.9 billion.

In 2013, NPS visitors spent a total of $14.6 billion in local gateway communities while visiting NPS lands. These expenditures directly supported over 143 thousand jobs, $4.2 billion in labor income, $6.9 billion in value added, and $11.2 billion in output in the national economy. The secondary effects of visitor spending supported an additional 94 thousand jobs, $5.0 billion in labor income, $8.8 billion in value added, and $15.3 billion in output in the national economy. Combined, NPS visitor spending supported a total of 238 thousand jobs, $9.2 billion in labor income, $15.6 billion in value added, and $26.5 billion in output in the national economy.

Which park system unit contributed the most to that total? The Blue Ridge Parkway, which generated nearly $1 billion ($999.3 million) in business last year, according to the report, followed closely by Great Smoky Mountains National Park with $943.2 million.

The report also noted that overall visitation to the parks was down in 2013, in large part due to the partial government shutdown in October, and due to ongoing impacts from Hurricane Sandy, which swept up the Eastern Seaboard in October 2012.

What was not part of the report, but which would be equally important in assessing the overall value of the National Park System, would be an analysis of the ecological worth of the parks. What value are the forests that act as air and water filters? How important to the nation are the flora and fauna protected by the parks? Let's measure the ecological, and economic, value of coastal wetlands and barrier islands at places such as Everglades National Park, Gulf Islands National Seashore, and Assateague Island National Seashore, that not only provide critical habitat for shorebirds, waterfowl, and fish, but also serve as storm buffers.

If the Park Service feels it must tout the dollar-impact of the parks to generate Congressional and public support, it could similarly bolster that argument by defining the "natural capital" that resides in the park system.

"Nature has provided ecosystems and their benefits to us for free. However, perhaps because this capital has been provided freely to us, we humans have tended to view it as limitless, abundant, and always available for our use, exploitation, and conversion. The concept of an ecosystem as natural capital can help us analyze the economic behavior that has led to the overuse of so much ecological wealth. If we can understand this behavior better, then perhaps we can find ways to manage and enhance what is left of our natural endowment. -- Edward B. Barbier, Capitalizing on Nature, Ecosystems as Natural Assets.

Comments

I am so glad to hear that our national parks are making Big Money. I was indeed worried there for a moment that untrammeled nature was all they offered.

Don't worry too much Alfred. Those are, for the most part, manfuactured numbers.

ec, please show us some proof of that allegation.

If anyone thinks that national parks are not paying their own way, come to Gatlinburg, TN, one of the gateway towns to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Visitors spend on motel rooms, meals, trinkets and serious camping equipment and ice cream. And that includes me.

Danny www.hikertohiker.com

ec, please show us some proof of that allegation.

Lee - read the analysis. It is full of assumptions. The most blatant and erroneous of which is that people would not spend the money elsewhere if parks didn't exist.

ecbuck, I thought the point is; they would spend money elsewhere if the parks didn't exist not the other way around.

Kinda like if the USFS didn't allow for the operation of a ski resort around Aspen, Telluride, Brekenridge, etc while maintaining large tracks of public lands around these areas, those poor real estate title exchangers wouldn't be able to reap in larger profits for overinflated prices for the private lands around these spots. Mainly, because the wealthy would spend their money elsewhere since many of these places would be of less value, especially if these mountains were turned over to mining companies, and thousands of subidivided lots, but hey.... Some just don't see the reality of any current situation, now do they? West Virginia is a good example of this compared to what you find in many areas of Colorado and Western Montana.

Yes, David, people would spend elsewhere. The report assumes otherwise.

because the wealthy would spend their money elsewhere

And non "wealthy" alike

I had a conference at the Univeristy of Minnesota in June and made reservations to stay at the Arrowhead Lodge and the Kettle Falls Inn at Voyageurs NP. Due to severe flooding, NPS was forced to cancel my backcountry permit, so I skipped the park and just flew home after the conference, never spending any money at either business.

My wife and I are about to meet her family for a week-long vacation in Edisto, S.C. She's never been to Shenadoah NP, so instead of driving straight through to Edisto, or maybe staying a single night somewhere, we're going to spend two nights at the Skyland Resort in Shenandoah.

In September, my wife has a conference in San Antonio. Instead of flying home right after the conference, we're renting a car and driving to Big Bend NP, where we will be hiring a shuttle and renting watercraft from a local outfitter in order to float down the Rio Grande for two days.

The list goes on and on. And in each case, without the National Parks, our money would otherwise be just sitting in our bank account rather than circulating through the economy.

True, but the wealthy definitely drive those small mountain town resort economies and keep them somewhat afloat. Otherwise, they will just become another one of those rural impoverished areas where many residents dont even have running water to their homes.

ecbuck...I see your point. What your saying is if for every dollar invested in something else besides the National Park System we may get more than $10 in return. But than we would have crappy parks.

No David, I think you are still missing the point. My point is that people recreate. Even if no National Parks existed, they would recreate, I do a camping/sightseeing road trip every summer. Sometimes I go to National Parks, sometimes I go elsewhere. If the NPs didn't exist, I wouldn't stop going on my road trips. I would still make those trips and still spend that money. The NPs haven't generated anything in my case. In fact, because it is far cheaper to stay in a NP campsite than a motel, I probably spend less when a NP is involved.

Is the NP contribution to the economy zero? No. There probably is some stimulation in demand but you can't count every dollar loosly connected to a National Park as an incremental contribution.

"It is full of assumptions. The most blatant and erroneous of which is that people would not spend the money elsewhere if parks didn't exist."

Many people wouldn't spend the money elsewhere in the United States. The report makes it clear that the parks are a large driver of tourism, both foreign and domestic. If we didn't have the sort of flagship parks that draw in foreign visitors, they would not be spending their money in the United States. And if we did not have parks like Virgin Islands National Park, for example, many domestic tourists might be spending their money in the British Virgin Islands instead.

The tourism of the parks facilitates travel. They're not the only reason people travel within the country, but they are a big driver. Domestically if people weren't traveling, that is money that would not go to lodging (they'd be home), or restaurants (they can cook at home). And foreign tourist money just wouldn't enter our economy at all.

Domestically if people weren't traveling, that is money that would not go to lodging (they'd be home), or restaurants (they can cook at home).

You are assuming that if there were no NPs people wouldn't engage in tourism, travel or eat out. That assumption is absurd. Yes, there may be some incremental demand but to claim the entire spending as incremental is equally absurd.

ecbuck, I get your point. But fact is the parks are trying to show their worth through a little propaganda. They are competing for recreating dollars spent by vacationers and at the same time competing for tax dollars. If anything, they at least deserve more money for maintainance of the parks and show on paper that a dollar spent returns 10. I would bet Disney talks about their tax contribution when they need better roads or services. Anyway my point is it may be important to NPS to use the propaganda to get what they need.

"You are assuming that if there were no NPs people wouldn't engage in tourism, travel or eat out. That assumption is absurd. Yes, there may be some incremental demand but to claim the entire spending as incremental is equally absurd."

I claimed no such thing; only a willful misreading of what I wrote could lead you to such a statement. The line immediately preceding what you quoted had me saying this: "They're not the only reason people travel within the country, but they are a big driver."

So no, I am hardly assuming that if there were no National Parks people wouldn't engage in tourism. I quite specifically said that there are other reasons to travel. But the National Parks are a significant driver of tourism, as clearly demonstrated by the millions of visitors certain parks get and the spending they engage in for food and lodging and alcohol in those locations.

True, but the wealthy definitely drive those small mountain town resort economies and keep them somewhat afloat. Otherwise, they will just become another one of those rural impoverished areas where many residents dont even have running water to their homes.

If that were true I would say "So what?". But living and being involved in one of those communities I know that it isn't true. The vast driver of economics in Breckenridge is the tourist. The non-wealthy family from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Minnisota.... Their sales taxes and lodging taxes provide by far the largest portion of the towns operating budget and generate the vast majority of the employment and income for the town and County.

That's a good point, ethelred. I forgot about the millions of foreign visitors to the parks each year. Whenever I speak with them, it's interesting how much of their trip to the states is organized around the parks. It's pretty implict that their trip through the U.S. would be abridged if the parks didn't exist. In National Park of American Samoa, everyone we encountered was from another country, traveling through the South Pacific islands, and not a single one would have stopped in Pago (pretty obviously (and unfortunately) if you've been there) or made it to Ofu (no easy way to get there) without the park.

But the National Parks are a significant driver of tourism, as clearly demonstrated by the millions of visitors certain parks get and the spending they engage in for food and lodging and alcohol in those locations.

Again you assume the driver to tour is the park. In some cases that may be true. But I find it incredible that the majority of those people would stay at home and sit on their hands if there wasn't a NP to go to.

["The parks] are competing for ...tax dollars. If anything, they at least deserve more money for maintainance of the parks and show on paper that a dollar spent returns 10."

You're right, David, and I believe that's the primary reason for these reports. Right or wrong, a key measuring stick for many in Congress when it comes to appropriating tax dollars seems to be whether an agency or program contributes to the GNP.

"Again you assume the driver to tour is the park. In some cases that may be true."

I don't have to assume that. The visitation numbers speak for themselves. Places like Great Smoky, Yosemite, Virgin Islands, Shenandoah -- they are drivers of tourism, which we know because tourists are going there. This requires no assuming on my part. And since, in this study, local tourists were filtered out, the report can pretty clearly show the impact on lodging/food services that tourists to the parks have had.

200 years ago, the state of Pennsylvania nearly tore down Independence Hall. Now between 3 and 4 million people a year are visiting that. That is a concrete driver of tourism.

Now, maybe if that building hadn't been saved, those 3 to 4 million people would still be visiting. And maybe if we had chopped down the redwoods, and hadn't protected Yosemite Valley, and hadn't protected Yellowstone, maybe there would be virtually no impact to the amount of travel done within the United States. There's been no study to support such an assumption, though.

"But I find it incredible that the majority of those people would stay at home and sit on their hands if there wasn't a NP to go to."

Sounds like you're the one making assumptions, then, not the report. You're assuming that if we didn't have any of our National Parks, there'd be little fluctuation in tourism. Sounds like a shaky assumption.

Thanks for righting the ship, Jim. From the opening quote, the thrust of the article is about the economic activity promoted by the parks. Would some of that economic activity exist without the parks? Obviously. Would most of it? Maybe. But to assert that the same level of activity would exist without the national parks is pretty ridiculous.

they are drivers of tourism, which we know because tourists are going there.

So lets make this easy. If those parks didn't exist would those people play tourist elsewhere? Yes or No.

Eric, you even admit that you like to travel to National Parks. Nature is what people are seeking, and the National Parks are some of the best areas for nature in our country. There are also many that don't have great acess to natural areas near their homes. One of the reasons the Smokies region is so popular is that there is around 2 million acres of protected forest in the region from the Cohutta Wilderness up to Southern Virginia. It's one of the few spots, outside of the Everglades, and some may argue the Adirondacks where you can find anything considerable in size that is protected. After Orlando, DC, and NY, this area is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Eastern US, and viewing pure nature is part of that draw. If these mountains were not protected like that, not many would travel here, as much. Southern West Virginia doesn't have much National Forest, nor a tourist industry, but the terrain is somewhat similar. It's a definite contrast between the two areas.

But to assert that the same level of activity would exist without the national parks is pretty ridiculous.

And of course nobody has made that assertion. In fact, quite the opposite.

Gary, I don't disagree with anything you said in your last post. But saying people will stop spending tourist dollars if there are no National Parks is the same as saying people will stop eating if their local grocery store closes.

The most blatant and erroneous of which is that people would not spend the money elsewhere if parks didn't exist.

Yes, David, people would spend elsewhere.

"So lets make this easy. If those parks didn't exist would those people play tourist elsewhere? Yes or No."

Now you're asking me to make assumptions?

Okay, I'll play along. If none of our National Parks existed, my assumption is: we'd get very little foreign tourism, much of our domestic tourism would be redirected to places outside the country, some of our domestic tourism would cease altogether, and some of it would take place elsewhere in the US (theme parks, state parks).

I think it's a safe assumption that without any of our National Parks, tourism within the US would take a very substantial hit.

ethelred "very little foreign tourism"? Do you have anything to substantiate your believe that the vast majority of our foreign tourism is driven by the Parks?

Would "some of our domestic tourism" go away. Perhaps. Would all of it go away? Not a chance in you know where.

National Parks steer tourism dollars to where the parks are located. Since lots of parks are in rural places where jobs are scarce, they are the main economic engine. NP are the ultimate renewable economic resource.

Justin, If that quote is supposed to prove that I said there is no incremental spending, you are sorely mistaken.

I made the point that the report assumes that people wouldn't spend at all. That every dollar in the park is incremental. Which is absurd.

I elaborated later that "Yes, there may be some incremental demand but to claim the entire spending as incremental is equally absurd" So contrary to your accusation I have never said there was no incremental spending - quite the opposite.

I am probably in the middle on this one. Without the NPS people would recreate elsewhere. But because they are there we need to show that they are an important tourist destination and worth investing tax dollars to keep them up. If growth in tourism happens in anyplace there will be a need to do upkeep and upgrades in roads, services, airports, etc... in my view that is the sum of the report.

So, it looks like we're now in agreement that 1) there is incremental spending (of course we don't know what defines or how to capture "incremental spending"), and 2) that some people might spend comparable money elsewhere in lieu of a visitation to a national park.

Ethelred, the chart on page 5 may interest (but disappont) you:

http://www.nationalparksonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/OTTI-Inter...

Of the overseas visitors in 2009, less than 20% visted a National Park and of course that would include things like the National Mall or Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island which would be visted no matter what their status.

80% didn't visit any National Park and who knows how many of the 20% came primarily for a park rather than going to a park tangentially.

Did some come because of the Parks. Probably. Was it the overwhelming majority, absolutely not. So your contention, "we'd get very little foreign tourism" is absolutely wrong.

No one can fault Jarvis for trying to promote the parks, after all that is part of his job. If his point is to sucure additional funding then I see this as the same argument professional sports teams use to justify asking taxpayers to buy them new sports complexes or business uses to ask for land and subsidies. If in fact every dollar spent returns 10 as Jarvis states or is good for the local economy as is the justification in the other cases, then we should be able to lower taxes shouldn't we? Yet it always results in a tax increase.

Were the national parks ever intended to be economic engines? Or where they to preserve slices of American grandeur? I think the latter.

I also think it would be just as, if not more, valuable to point out the role national parks play in filtering air and water, providing habitat for species, helping to keep some species off the Endangered Species List while helping others rebound from being listed.

There is an impressive aspect to the ecological role that the parks play that should be promoted just as vigorously, if not more so, than the economic component.

I agree, Kurt. The article invites a more interesting conversation about the parks as preserving value that hasn't been capitalized. (And since these places are so uniquely American, it's a nice way to think about American exceptionalism in the context of economic globalization. That's my Rooseveltism speaking.)

Although Grand Canyon National Park officials don't track visitors' nationalities, they say they've noticed a sharp increase in international tourists in the past year or so and estimate that they now make up about 40 percent of all visitors to the massive gorge.

From a 2008 article (http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/0330canyonvisits0330.html). All the evidence on this seems to be anecdotal--and therefore probably no way to resolve the arguments above. But it's interesting to consider--would 40% of visitors to the Grand Canyon have come to America if it didn't exist? Or would they have gone on safari in Kenya, to the rainforests of Central America, the Canadian Rockies, the islands of Greece?

But I like Kurt's question better.

Kurt nicely said, I also was disappointed in the NPS Director not pointing out the enormous ecological value of the parks, along with the recreational and economic benefits. Agree completely.

The parks do spend a lot of time showcasing the importance of ecology, protection of endangered plants and animals, and the value in preserved nature. I take it many here don't follow the various National Park pages on their social media pages, because that's 99% of their posts.

Justin, your post sums it up well. These places are INTERNATIONAL destinations. Without the designation of a National Park, they will not be on the map of most international tourists. Countries that have preserved large scale national parks like South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, the United States, Canada, Brazil, Peru, etc ARE in that ecotourism driven game because they have preserved nature that attract a certain breed of visitor. Some people in our country recongnize this. We are international community, and not just exactly a county, or a state anymore. It's an international community, and places like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Great Smokies, Kruger, Banff, Torres del Paine, Serengeti, Manu, Yellowstone can be held in the same breath.

Time is short on this planet, so some of us don't plan on wasting those dollars chasing theme parks riding roller coasters. To me it's chasing National Parks, and experiencing some of the best that the Earth has to offer. That's what drives my tourist dollars. In fact next week, i'm off for a 2 week adventure doing just that in the Northern Rockies again. . . Not a theme park involved.

I'm with Kurt. I'm an idealist. There are things that I believe in because they are the right thing to do. The National Parks are one of those things. I believe that it is a judge of a nation how much it invests in things that are worthwhile for themselves, with no tangible [dollarable] return.

How to pay for them? Oh, there is a long list of ways. After taking care of every veteran, divert some of the money wasted on wars over the past couple of decades and spend it on the parks. Take back the tax breaks given to the oil companies and insurance companies and such, and spend it on the arts. Take back the tax free status of churches and spent the millions gained on feeding the poor and healing the sick and infirm. The parks, like kittens and butterflies, are their own excuse.

I believe that it is a judge of a nation how much it invests in things that are worthwhile for themselves, with no tangible [dollarable] return.

Well said, Rick. Better than my post above.

Take back the tax breaks given to the oil companies and insurance companies and such,

LOL Ignorance is bliss.

At CHNSRA the NPS has recently changed policies have negatively impacted economic prosperity of the villages contained within the park. A 35+% decline has been mostly attributed to excessive beach closures. The recent changes include the most popular beach destinations are closed to ALL access during the prime tourism season resulting in dozens of businesses closing, layoffs, and more. The economic engine at CHNSRA has been broken and so has the promises of the NPS.

NPS stats indicate visitation is only off 4 percent year-to-date through June. Where did you get the 35 percent figure, Beach?

YTD 2014: 933932

YTD 2013: 973,078

https://irma.nps.gov/Stats/SSRSReports/Park%20Specific%20Reports/Monthly%20Public%20Use?Park=CAHA

Sorry, I meant economic impact since the new rule. After 2003, estimated 2.8 million, the visitation dropped signigicantly corresponding with the NPS changes in management and beach closures. Visitation numbers have not recovered and probably never will unless the NPS changes. Business's once depended on the relationship with the NPS now loathe the NPS.

I know your about to pull some stats from SELC propaganda how the "OBX" economy is improving, but those numbers are skewed by non-island numbers and changes in taxes, so don't bother...

Beach, NPS shows 2003 visitation at 2.6 million, though 2002 was 2.9 million. Still, using your 35 percent figure, it doesn't work with 2002 figures compared to last year's 2.2 million. (35 percent of 2.9 million is a bit over 1 million)

Nevertheless, how do you differentiate drops in visitation caused by NPS regs and that caused by hurricanes and Highway 12 washouts?

Again sorry, I meant a 35% decrease economicly since the new rule, not visitation. Though visitation has of course suffered, as they go hand-in-hand, 2.9m in 2002 and what is it now barely 2m.

I believe the NPS purposely doesn't make accurate counts of visitation because of internal politics. At CHNSRA they use car counters, which includes every trash truck, service deliveries and residents working off island. It's simply impossible to rely on these numbers. Based on my experience and discussions with business's, the visitation is down and a direct result of the NPS actions. Spin it your way as you wish...