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National parks generated $35 billion in 2017

An annual report details the importance of parklands to gateway towns

Yosemite National Park in summer.
Yosemite National Park in summer.

A new report from the National Park Service reveals that in 2017, 331 million park visitors spent billions and helped support “gateway communities” located near the U.S.’s most popular parks. In addition, visitor spending in parks throughout the country has grown each year over the past five years.

Overall, visitors spent $18.2 billion in national parks last year, with the majority going towards hotels, restaurants, gas, and retail. Those expenditures supported 306,000 jobs, $11.9 billion in labor income, and a total of $35.8 billion in economic output in the national economy.

Areas of the U.S. with the most-visited parks benefited the most. California parkland visitors spent $1.9 billion alone, with Alaska ($1.3 billion) and North Carolina ($1.3 billion) rounding out the top three. And while the big parks in the West—like Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, and Yellowstone—contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy, Blue Ridge National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains each clocked in over $1.3 billion in economic output.

The annual report comes after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently backed down on his proposal to increase national park admission prices to nearly three times the current rate. The National Park Service will still increase admission for the 117 parks that charge admission, but only by $5 or $10.

Both the proposed fee increases and the significant economic contributions detailed in the 2017 report are indicative of the park system’s immense popularity. In 2017, the National Park Service received nearly 331 million recreation visits, falling just short of 2016’s record breaking year by less than 90,000 visits. The high volume of visitors hasn’t helped maintenance crews; the parks now have a $12 billion maintenance backlog.

For the communities located at the entrance to national parks—like Estes Park, Colorado, or Whitefish, Montana—the 2017 report confirms what any local will tell you: Playing outdoors is big business.