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Measuring the impact of national parks on Montana's economy, hint: its really big

Katrin Frye

Out of town travelers make up the vast majority of visitors to national parks and they dump a whole lot of money into local economies.

Nationwide that number is $13.9-billion for 2012. These are the findings released by the National Park Service in a report that details the economic impact of national parks.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell hosted a conference call with reporters Monday. She said the report helps her make the case for funding parks.

“And by having it on a state-by-state basis, and even a park-by-park basis, that can be used within local communities to make the case for why their local elected officials should support the national parks, and frankly other public lands as well because of the economic drivers they provide to those local communities.”

Jewell said during the government shutdown last fall parks counted nearly 8-million-fewer visitors than the previous October, and a loss of $414-million of visitor spending in the gateway communities surrounding the nations’ parks.

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said gateway communities are defined as those within 60-miles of a national park.

That encompasses the Flathead Valley and then some.

“This is where folks buy their gas and stay in hotels and buy supplies and the like. Very strong impact in these local communities, a very important part of the economic impact of the national parks is that it is at the gateway community level,” Jarvis said.

Of about 2-million-visitors to Glacier National Park in 2012, almost all of them were from out of town and they dropped $172-million into the local economy.

Yellowstone saw more than 3-million-visitors who spent more than $400-million.

Jarvis said for 2012 they used a new model, working with the U-S Geological Survey to create the report. He said the changes make for more specific and accurate information at the local level, but make it hard to compare numbers from 2011 to 2012.

“It looks like visitation went up, but its overarching impact to the country went down slightly. But that’s because of these economic driver factors. But the bottom line of a dollar invested in the national parks still results in a 10 dollar return to the American economy,” Jarvis said they incorporate surveys from many of the local gateway communities gauging how many days the visitors stay, how much they spend, and where they spend their money.

In Montana a report from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research out of the University of Montana shows national park visitation for the state down 64-percent for the month of October.

The report states that 87-percent of those coming to visit Montana in 2012 came for the state’s landscapes and recreation opportunities, including Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.

It calls Montana’s tourism industry as a whole a $3-billion-dollar industry.

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