- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2008

The country’s national parks have become a valuable asset during the recession - drawing thousands of visitors and propping up local economies, a new study shows.

Visitors to the National Park Service sites in the District and elsewhere in country last year helped support roughly 209,000 jobs and spent $11.8 billion in gift shops and nearby businesses such as hotels, restaurants and gas stations, according to the study by the National Park Service and Michigan State University.

“Every tax dollar spent on national parks resulted in more than $4 in visitor spending in communities within 50 miles of a national park site,” agency director Mary A. Bomar said.

Visitors staying outside the parks in motels, hotels, cabins and bed-and-breakfasts accounted for 55 percent of the total spending. Sixteen percent was spent on gas and transportation, and 14 percent went to souvenirs.

The study authors did not consider as new revenue the money local residents spent on going to nearby parks so it was excluded from the study of the agency’s 391 park sites.

Among the most successful sites in bolstering local economies was the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, a Civil War battlefield and major destination for amateur historians. The roughly 8,000-acre park in Northern Virginia generated about $49.6 million in 2007 for the local economy, according to the study.

“A large number of the people who come to this park are Civil War buffs who bring their families,” Don Fanz, a staff historian, said Friday. “And a lot come due to the general history here.”

The National Park Service sites cover more than 84 million acres in every state (except Delaware), as well as the District, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. They include national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, seashores, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House.

The agency was created in 1916 by an act signed by President Woodrow Wilson. However, the country’s first national park was Yellowstone, spanning Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, which was established in 1872 by an act signed by President Ulysses S. Grant.

The recent success of the park sites have been a bright spot in an economy that nearly every day produces more bad numbers - from low consumer spending to more bad debt to increasing unemployment.

The average spending by visitors increased by 8.7 percent in 2007 while the park service’s budget increased by 1 percent.

There were 275.6 million recreational visits to park sites last year.

Still, parks sites might not be recession-proof because trips and vacations are often the first to go for belt-tightening families.

Mr. Franz said the Fredericksburg section of the Virginia park recently has had fewer visitors.

And visitors to the District over the weekend said they were watching every dollar.

Donna Russell, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., said Sunday that she, husband Bill, daughter Jenny, son Andy, and his fiance, Rochelle Riggs, spent lots on travel expenses, which would mean tighter spending while visiting the Mall and other park service sites.

“We’re into this thing for about $5,000,” Mrs. Russell said.

The group also rented a car and is staying with family in Northern Virginia, for whom they bought groceries.

“We’re not going to be doing anything expensive,” said Jenny, 22.

The report also cited Assateague Island Nation Seashore as another popular site and a boon for the rural Eastern Shore economy losing its fishing industry.

The park - south of Ocean City, and known for its oceanside campgrounds and wild ponies - had 2.1 million recreational visitors in 2007 and supported 3,182 jobs in the region.

The park service has roughly 145,000 park volunteers and about 20,000 permanent, temporary and seasonal employees.

Overall, park service sites in Maryland generated $178 million in visitor spending, and Virginia’s generated $462 million. Finding the economic impact of parks in the D.C. area is difficult because they often involve more than one state, but will likely be subject to a regional analysis in the future, according to the report.

Ming Feng and girlfriend Aru Xiao, both 32, took a $1 bus from New York City to the District to see the sites - another example of the economy-minded visitors.

The couple didn’t plan to spend much except a hot chocolate for Miss Xiao and dinner at a “nice sit-down restaurant,” Mr. Feng said.

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