Upswing in national park visits good for the country

Zion Np 1
Zion National Park. (Photo by Jane Beathard)

An early June press release from the U.S. Department of the Interior confirmed what I have said and written about in the past: visitation in our national parks is on a dramatic upswing.

It’s something I have seen personally during my winters in southern Nevada and in visits to southern Utah and northern Arizona.

The press release said visitation generated more than $41 billion in 2019 for the economy. About half of that amount was spent in communities near the national parks. That figure was up $800 million from the year before. In 2014, that number was only $29.7 billion and has been increasing every year since.

The parks hosted 327 million visitors in 2019 and those folks spent $21 billion in nearby communities. Most of that money went for lodging, food, and fuel.

I have seen it in southern Utah and northern Arizona where visitation has grown to the point there’s talk of limiting the number of people that can enter popular sites like Zion and Bryce Canyon daily. Unless you are in line when the parks open, chances are you won’t get a parking place adjacent to a hiking trail in Arches or Zion.

I have even seen the trend in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area that lies on the west edge of Las Vegas. It’s a lovely area with hiking trails and beautiful rock formations. Twenty-five years ago, there were rarely more than a half-dozen cars in the parking lots adjacent to the area’s trails. Today, those lots are generally full and hikers can be spotted on every canyon trail. People are snapping selfies everywhere.

Visitors seem as interested in southern Nevada’s natural landscape as they do in the blackjack tables and shows in the city. And many of those are from other countries – especially the Far East. You hear a variety of languages spoken when tour companies arrive.

Grand Canyon National Park is only about a five-hour drive from Las Vegas and daily bus trips are offered through local tour companies. The National Park Service said 6 million folks visited there last year, spending more than $890 million in the process.

Here in Ohio, Cuyahoga National Park hosted 2.2 million visitors in 2019. Those folks spent $39.5 million in northeast Ohio businesses.

A discussion of what exactly accounts for this renewed interest in our national parks would draw many opinions.

The Ken Burns-produced national park series that aired on PBS a few years ago helped spur awareness of the park system.

It may be increased interest in the environment and a desire to pull kids away from their phones and game pads and expose them to the outdoors.

With more incidents of terrorism, traveling outside the U.S. – especially to Europe – appears more hazardous to many these days. That may well be keeping people at home.

Or, it may be the aging Baby Boomers have inherited plenty of money and want to spend it seeing places they didn’t have time to visit in their youth. Discounted park passes for seniors have probably helped.

Whatever the reason, the upswing in national park visitation is good for the economy and the country. Designating (and preserving) our beautiful wild places for the world to enjoy remains the best idea America ever had.

Categories: Ohio – Jane Beathard

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