Economic Value Of America's National Parks

Last October's 16-day government shutdown took a bite out of the economic benefit that America's national parks generate for the overall economy, and hurt business in the communities surrounding the parks.

The closure of all but a handful of America's 401 national parks for the duration reduced the national parks' estimated contribution to the U.S. economy for the full year to $26.5 billion, down from $26.8 billion in 2012. The shutdown is estimated to have cost communities in and around the parks $414 million in lost business.[slideshow:1040]

"Every tax dollar invested in the National Park Service returns $10 to the U.S. economy because of visitor spending" on goods and services that support hundreds of thousands of mostly local jobs, National Park Service (NPS) Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said when presenting the latest annual report on the economic impact of the country's national parks*. 

The number of visits to national parks fell by 9.1 million to 273.6 million in 2013, a decline of 3.2% compared to the previous year, the report says. As well as the government shutdown induced closures nationally, some parks in the northeast of the country were closed in the first half of the year as repairs related to 2011's Hurricane Sandy were completed.

Overall, visitor spending for 2013 fell by 1% from 2012's level as a consequence. The number of jobs supported by that spending was down 2.1%. The numbers in comparison to 2012 are summarized in the table below.

National Park Visitor Spending Contributions to the U.S. Economy
Year Visitations Visitor Spending Jobs Supported Local Jobs Total Output
2012 282,765,682 $14.7 billion 242,712 201,040 $26.8 billion
2013 273,630,895 $14.6 billion 237,599 197,343 $26.5 billion
Source: 2013 National Park Visitor Spending Effects

Blue Ridge Parkway saw the largest drop in absolute visitor numbers and spending (only two of the most popular sites in the national park system are actually National Parks). Several lengthy winter weather-related closures of the scenic highway that meanders for 469 miles through the Appalachian Highlands exacerbated the factors that affected all properties in the national park system in 2013. Some 2.3 million fewer visitors drove the route last year than in 2012, leading to a $119.5 million fall in visitor spending along the way, a 13.25% decline.[slideshow:1039]

That, though, was a relative trifle compared to the NPS property that experienced the biggest percentage decline, the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia. The home that the 19th century author rented for six years saw a 68.5% fall in visitor spending to $324,300, on a 69% decline in visits to 5,884.

The National Park hit by the biggest decline in spending was Yellowstone, down $18.6 million on a 260,000 decline in visits, 4.6% and 7.5% falls respectively. The biggest percentage loser among the National Parks was Kobuk Valley in northwestern Alaska 25 miles north of the Arctic Circle. One of the least visited national parks anyway, it saw a 42.9% fall in visits to 16,875 and a 41.5% decline in visitor spending to $25 million. 

Yet Denali, also in Alaska, saw its visitor numbers increase by more than a third, to 531,000, the largest increase for any National Park. Spending rose by 38.2% to $513.3 million.

A measure of the impact those changes had is that visitor spending at Kobuk Valley last year supported 250 fewer local jobs than it did the year before, 345 versus 595. At Blue Ridge Parkway, the biggest generator of local jobs in the national park system, visitor spending supported 11,283 local jobs last year, 885 fewer than in the previous year. Yet at Denali, jobs supported increased to 6,992 in 2013 from 5,098 the previous year.

Economic Impact of NPS Visitors
Sector Jobs Labor Income ($m) Value Added* ($m) Output** ($m)
Direct Effects
Restaurants and bars 50,019 1,155 1,677 2,930
Hotels, motels, and B&Bs 37,988 1,338 2,529 4,418
Amusements and recreations 28,561 716 1,027 1,501
Transit and ground transportation services 8,458 387 737 1,089
Retail establishments 6,811 199 326 403
Grocery and convenience stores 5,014 160 217 300
Camping and other accommodations 3,881 145 193 354
Gas stations 2,631 98 148 196
Total Direct Effects 143,363 4,197 6,855 11,191
Secondary Effects 94,236 5,040 8,769 15,307
Total Effects 237,599 9,238 15,624 26,498
Source: 2013 National Park Visitor Spending Effects; *=contribution to gross domestic product (GDP), **= value of sales of goods and services produced. Totals may not add exactly because of rounding.

Almost a third of a park's visitors' spending ($14.6 billion in total in 2013) goes for lodging and another more than a quarter for food and beverages (see chart below). The economic impact of park visitors' direct spending is multiplied as local businesses such as hotels, motels, restaurants and bars in turn give more business to their suppliers and pay more in wages for staff.

"National parks are often the primary economic engines of many park gateway communities," Jarvis says.

He says visitor numbers are rebounding this year, and that he expects a steady increase ahead of the National Park Service's centennial in 2016.


*Cullinane Thomas, C., C. Huber, and L. Koontz. 2014. 2013 National Park visitor spending effects: Economic contributions to local communities, states, and the nation. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR—2014/824. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado. 

See Also: 

Economic Impact of America's National Parks, 2012

Most Popular Sites in America's National Park System

National Parks — Ranked

America's National Parks Most in Peril from Global Warming

National Parks Guide