What’s a National Park Worth to an Area? Quite a Lot, Study Shows

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U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the National Park Service, recently commented that national parks are not money makers. Well, an economic study prepared for one of Utah’s congressional districts says otherwise.

The study prepared for Grand County, Utah, which counts Arches National Parkwithin its borders and is adjacent toCanyonlands National Park, states that today “tourism and recreation on public lands are the largest economic sector in Grand County.”

Furthermore, says the analysis prepared by Headwaters Economics, “a significant reason for the county’s economic success stems from the diversity found today within its tourism and recreation economy. Finding ways to sustain and develop tourism and recreation that appeals to a wide mixture of visitors and residents is paramount to long-term well-being and economic resilience.”

Eighty-seven percent of the county, which lies in southeastern Utah, is comprised of state and federal lands, according to the study. With hopes of pinpointing how valuable, economically, those lands were, county officials and stakeholders asked the Montana firm to conduct the economic analysis.

Looking only at national parks, the analysis shows that Arches and Canyonlands generate economic activity for Grand County in two ways: visitor spending, of course, and employee payrolls.

“The NPS reported that, in fiscal year 2009, there were 996,312 visits to Arches National Park and 436,241 visits to Canyonlands National Park, up 29 percent and 11 percent respectively, from 2005 to 2009,” the study noted. “In fiscal year 2009, area national
park visitor spending contributed to an estimated $44.7 million in labor income while NPS payroll contributed another $8.8 million in labor income, resulting in $53.5 million in total labor income. To put this in perspective, total labor earnings in Grand County for 2009 were $192 million.”

More so, jobs created by the park visitors and the parks’ payrolls totalled nearly 2,200 in FY09, which generated a related $135.7 million in spending, the study added.

Beyond those direct benefits of tourism and recreation in the county, there are a number of indirect benefits that contribute to Grand County’s economic wellbeing, the study found.

In addition to the economic benefits of extraction and visitor recreation, the presence of public lands and the environmental and recreational amenities they provide are closely linked to economic growth. Business owners, retirees, and others have discovered that communities adjacent to public lands with scenic vistas and ample recreation opportunities are desirable places to live and conduct business. 

There is a growing body of literature documenting that attractive public lands draw amenity migrants who in turn stimulate economic expansion. One recent study found that counties in the West with national parks, national monuments, and other protected public lands, set aside for their wildland characteristics, play an important role in stimulating economic growth.

In Grand County — where nearly a third of the population growth over the last decade came from inmigration and half of all residents say they participate in camping, hiking, wildlife viewing, and other activities on public lands—attractive public lands are clearly a reason why people live and conduct business here.

When compared to other rural counties in Utah, Grand County’s rate of job growth has been relatively high since 1990. While federal public lands, and national parks and national monuments in particular, are not the only reason for economic growth, in Grand County their presence is consistent with a high rate of employment growth (+92.3 percent since 1990).

In affiliation with National Parks Traveler.

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