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A breakdown of the big bucks visitors spend at national parks

 Opening day at the Yellowstone National Park northern entrance on June 1, 2020.
Jacob W. Frank
National Park Service
Opening day at the Yellowstone National Park northern entrance on June 1, 2020.

News brief

National parks have rebounded from 2020’s shutdowns, but not all of them made it back to pre-pandemic levels last year.

Montana-based nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics compiles National Park Service data annually, and this week it published data showing that NPS units — which can include national monuments, forts, historical locations, parks and preserves — saw a big surge in visitors from 2020 to 2021.

With visitors came spending. From 2020 to 2021, the amount they spent increased 34% to $20.4 billion nationwide. But that’s still below 2019's total of $22.2 billion.

Some individual parks also didn’t make it back to pre-pandemic visitor or spending levels last year, like Rocky Mountain National Park.

Meanwhile, several other national parks exceeded all previous records, including Arches, Grand Teton and Zion.

“About 15% of the park units across the whole country have actually seen record visitation in 2021,” said Megan Lawson, an economist for Headwaters Economics.

“The trends that were happening before the pandemic for the most part are just continuing. So if visitation was going up before, it’s likely still increasing.”

Numbers for this year aren’t available yet, but early data shows Yellowstone National Park’s visitorship slumped in response to flooding and closures there.

NPS units in Utah reported the highest levels of visitor spending in the Mountain West last year, at $1.6 billion. Idaho had the lowest level in the region at $37 million.

Lawson said these numbers demonstrate a larger point: the economic potential in preserving public lands.

“I think national parks are a great illustration of the power that our public lands have to support nearby communities and help to diversify economies,” she said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

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