Study: national parks create economic benefits for communities
by Craig Bigler
contributing writer
Jun 11, 2009 | 1364 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
National parks attract not only visitors but also new residents to isolated rural communities, lending economic diversity and stability to the communities of southeastern Utah, according to a study recently released by the National Parks Conservation Association.

The study details the growth in visitation to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, plus Natural Bridges and Hovenweep National Monuments, and the economic benefits derived from that visitation.

Park management employs 140 people directly and 184 indirectly. Well over a million visitors spend nearly $100 million directly every year, resulting in 2,315 local jobs that pay $37 million. Another $58 million is realized indirectly, according to the study.

Much of the good news is attributed to productive cooperation between the community and the park service, according to the document. The study makes recommendations on how local communities can “better leverage their proximity to national parks for improved economic performance.”

Perhaps the main recommendation is to get people to stay in the area longer. To that end the study advises communities to create a “regional brand identity” and to “be smart about growth and development”.

The study also advises the parks on ways to induce people to stay longer.

Titled “Landscapes of Opportunity,” the study compares Grand and San Juan Counties with 14 isolated counties throughout the west that are close to national parks, and with 191 isolated counties that do not enjoy park proximity.

“Park peer counties,” as the isolated counties by national parks are called, outpace other isolated counties in terms of population growth, jobs, and income growth. Grand County is growing faster than any of them, while San Juan is not.

Both Grand and San Juan have a higher percentage of jobs that require a college education than all the other isolated counties, reflecting “a concentration of higher-paying federal and state government positions and employment in manufacturing and mining.”

Grand County has a higher portion of residents with college degrees, while San Juan is lower.

The essential conclusion of the study is that national parks attract visitors. Visitors create economic activity. And some of them return to live because of the attraction of the area to people who can “live and work where they want.”

In-migration is the key. “Studies from other regions suggest that these migrants may play an important economic role,” the study states.

It shows that Grand County gained 700 in-migrants from 2000 to 2006. The average “park peer county” gained about 150 residents, while isolated counties not near national parks experienced net out-migration.

San Juan County gained population, but it was “because of a high birth rate.” During the 2000-2006 time period “some 1,200 more people moved away than moved to the county,” the report states.

“Currently, there seems to be a good alignment between the character of each park and that of the nearby communities.... Moab’s hotels, restaurants and tour guides serve the seasonal rush of visitors [to Arches and Island in the Sky] with open arms.” the study states.

In contrast the study casts Monticello and Blanding as “lower-key gateways to parks and districts that draw fewer visitors”. It indicates that San Juan residents want to keep it that way.

The study’s advice to the parks entails night programs that induce people to stay an extra night in town, expanded trail systems, less light pollution and more night sky observation. It emphasizes educational programs for local youth.

Canyonlands Superintendent Kate Cannon likes that advice, especially the point about educating youth.

“Hopefully our community outreach program will get enough people to take a fresh look at parks so they can get the benefit of living near them,” Cannon said. “In San Juan we pay the cost of the bus transportation to get kids out so they can enjoy the parks as neighbors.”

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