Kimberly Kinchen, business network writer
From April 15-23, 2017, the National Park Service (NPS) is celebrating National Park Week, commemorating 84 million acres of public land that inspire awe and invite adventure. The parks?mostly wild, occasionally urban?are as popular as ever, welcoming more than 330 million visitors in 2016 and offering everything from backcountry hiking in the mountains of Glacier, to winding Sunday drives through the American South along the historical Natchez Trace, to bird (and gator) watching in Florida’s Everglades.
The collective access our National Parks give us to the outdoors is invaluable in pure recreation terms. But the Parks are also critical hubs in regional and local economies. Nationally, in 2015, visitors spent $16.9 billion in the communities that surround all 417 parks or park-affiliated areas, supporting 295,000 jobs.
In Everglades National Park alone, more than one million visitors spent approximately $103.4 million in gateway communities (those within 60 miles of a national park), supporting 1500 jobs. About 50,000 of those visitors were people who chose to enjoy the park on bicycles, including a cruise along Shark Valley’s flat 15-mile paved route through saw grass prairie in the heart of the Everglades, an outing that guarantees up-close-and-personal alligator sightings in the dry (winter) season.
Image: NPS – Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
Other parks offer more challenging routes, like Glacier’s 32-mile climb up Going-to-the-Sun Road. And, there is more and more mountain biking since a renewed 2005 Memorandum of Understanding between the National Park Service and the International Mountain Bicycling Association began opening select sections in 45 park units to off-road riding. This partnership recognizes that mountain biking can be a sustainable activity in harmony with the Park Service’s preservation mandate. Expect bike-based recreation in the parks to keep growing.
“National Parks are a popular destination for bicycling, which provides benefits often beyond those conceived when the [park service] was originally designated,” says Krista Sherwood of the National Park Service Transportation Program. “Bicycling offers a unique visitor experience of the NPS site and surrounding resources, but can also help mitigate negative impacts caused by vehicles such as congestion, air, light, and noise pollution and wildlife mortality.”
No matter how you enjoy them, our national parks are critical fuel for our bodies and souls?and the livelihoods of thousands of communities across the nation. Protecting natural areas can generate sustainable economic development and build strong local economies for today and tomorrow.