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Group: Utah parks a big benefit to local economies

Mike Stark
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

SALT LAKE CITY ” Visitors to national parks such as Arches and Canyonlands pump millions of dollars into local economies and provide a steadying influence in tumultuous times, according to a new analysis released Wednesday.

The National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit that advocates for parks, said that in 2007, travelers spent nearly $107 million in Grand County, home to Arches, and about $31 million in San Juan County, where much of Canyonlands is located.

The report follows a 2006 survey by the association that found national parks across the country are responsible for $13.3 billion in economic activity in local communities each year.

The analysis released Wednesday underscores the importance of protecting Utah’s natural wonders, said David Nimkin, director of NPCA’s southwest regional office.

“Places that have these iconic national landscapes are magnets for people. Some visit them and some come to stay and live. That brings wealth and opportunity,” Nimkin said.

Communities, though, ought to be careful in creating economies based strictly on service and seasonal tourism, he said. But national parks can provide a solid foundation for more diverse economies.

“It’s something to build on,” he said.

A rise in the number of visitors to national parks ” roughly 1.2 million people see Arches and Canyonlands a year ” has helped make up for a decline in the mining industry in southeastern Utah, the report said.

Park visitors’ expenditures directly and indirectly support about 2,500 jobs in Grand and San Juan counties, according to the group’s analysis, which relied on local, state and federal economic data.

While the economy in Grand County, and especially Moab, relies heavily on tourism, San Juan County’s economy is more diverse, the report said.

Ray Rasker, an economist with Bozeman, Mont.-based Headwaters Economics, said the effect of national parks on local economies varies from place to place, but there’s a larger theme that emerges.

“West-wide, places that have protected landscapes like national parks tend to be doing better economically in a variety of different ways,” he said.

He’s been tracking communities in the West where economies based on extraction industries and agricultural operations have given way to tourism. That tourism often leads to infrastructure improvements, including upgraded airports, which in turn lead to more people moving to the area and bringing their businesses with them, Rasker said.

“It’s not just quality of life,” he said. “It’s a magical combination of a national park with some sort of transportation infrastructure.”

Ken Davey, who makes up Moab’s one-person economic development office, said the city’s proximity to Arches and Canyonlands has played a large role in shaping its identity, especially in recent years.

Some people are drawn to the area first for the national parks and then, when they return, spend more time exploring the area’s other outdoor activities. A few decide not to leave.

Because of its isolation, Moab probably won’t be a contender for drawing large industries, so small businesses will play a key role in diversifying the local economy, Davey said. They might be able to make more money in other places, he said, but will have a hard time finding a better place to live.

“It’s going to be a lifestyle choice people make rather than an economic choice,” he said.


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