Park Season Opens to Growing Demand

Grand Teton National Park

Memorial Day kicks off what we like to call “Park Season,” which means that it’s time for cookouts, hiking, biking, fishing and enjoying your local park. This summer, you are not alone. A recently released national report compiled researchers at NC State confirms the significant contribution of state parks in American life. Last year, 759 million state park visits were recorded across the country.

The visitation, which would equate to an average of 2.4 visits by each American, represents an increase of 20 million visits, or 2.7 percent, from the year before. During this same period, day use increased by 18 million visits (2.8 percent) and overnight use grew by 700,00 visits (1.5 percent). These are the highest increases in park usage since 2006.

“This increase illustrates the growing demands of the American public for outdoor recreation and the multitude of benefits it affords,” said Dr. Yu-Fai Leung, project leader and Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management professor. “Such high levels of participation contribute significantly to our nation’s economy, but also challenges our state park officials to manage natural and cultural resources and the infrastructure sustainably.”

As the nation gets ready to celebrate the traditional start of the busiest season for state parks across the country, Lewis Ledford, National Association of State Park Directors (NASPD) executive director, said parks are a tonic for the mind body and spirit. He emphasizes three key reasons why the nation supports state parks and why policy makers should also support them:

  • State parks provide an outstanding return on investment to the nation’s economy – more than $20 billion in economic impact created by outdoor recreation and tourism spending by state park visitors with just over a $1 billion in tax supported funding – a 20-fold return on operating investment.
  • State Parks contribute significantly to a healthy, active lifestyle so critical in the fight against physical inactivity, attention disorders and type 2 diabetes that represent an epidemic in American society that impacts the cost of health care that burdens America.
  • With over 18 million acres of state park lands across the country, America’s State Parks represent natural and cultural treasures where our rich history is preserved and flora and fauna thrive. Rare, threatened and endangered specials are conserved and natural communities are kept intact for the benefit of our lands, water and air that support a healthy ecology and nation.

Leung, Dr. Anna Miller, project associate at NC State, and Dr. Jordan Smith, assistant professor and project co-PI in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University, completed the Annual Information Exchange (AIX) Report, which tabulates the data on state park operations for the NASPD.

Researchers at NC State, Utah State, and other institutions conduct statistical analyses on the AIX data to identify patterns and trends about state park use and operations. They found that state parks nationally generate significant return on their annual operating investment during economic recovery times. According to the AIX report, the total operating expenditures for state parks from all sources was $2.46 billion, 42.5 percent was generated by park revenue and 31.2 percent were contributed by state general funds.

This means that state park systems across the country have experienced sluggish growth in general fund support of operating expenditures in the past few years since the big declines in the aftermath of recent economic downturns.

“This combination – increased visitation and relatively flat operational support – stretches state park staff and resources for maintenance and programs,” said Lewis Ledford, NASPD executive director. “State park visitors expect clean, safe and well maintained facilities as well as first rate interpretive, educational and entertaining programs. The visitation document shows increases in the public’s interest and appreciation.”

The importance of state parks and their growing attendance is recognized by many state legislatures, with the total capital expenditures for state park operations increased by 25.3 percent, or $159 million. This increase in awareness is a result of increased general funds, dedicated funds and bonds, thanks to the recovering economy.

The 10,251 state parks and related units, such as recreation areas and natural areas, more than 42,000 miles of trails, and 220,000 campsites, provide diverse opportunities for outdoor recreation that enhance physical health and emotional well-being, nature learning and appreciation that creates awareness of the need for environmental stewards, and family and social bonding important to our quality of life. State parks are an essential component of the nation’s outdoor recreation resources and a healthy, active lifestyle.