Almost three decades on from passage of the Alaska National Interests Lands Act (ANILCA), the bonanza and the bust of 49th-state national parks is clearly outlined in a lengthy analysis of the economic value of parks in the U.S.
Road connected parks in the state are proving to have huge tourism value; remote parks not so much.
The 100 visitors who made their way to the Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve in Southwest Alaska last year spent a respectable $772 per person, but the local economic benefit totaled only $112,200, according to the study.
Such limited revenue isn’t going to do much to support the economy of nearby Port Heiden, population 102.
If you build a road…
Road-connected Denali National Park and Preserve, on the other hand, powers tourism so forcefully the revenue from a Denali Borough bed tax is almost enough to support the local government. The hotels stacked in the Nenana River canyon just outside the entrance to the park produce 71 percent of the borough’s budget, according to a study from the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
The stretch of the George Parks Highway just north of the park entrance is so stuffed with hotels, restaurants and shops it has come to be known as “Glitter Gulch.” The tourists there are gold, according to the tourism study by economists from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Park Service.
They concluded the economic output of Denali is now approaching $1 billion per year.
Denali is not the state’s most visited park – that distinction goes to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park in Skagway which attracted more than 900,000 visitors last year – but Denali is the workhorse of a park-driven economy the study estimated to be worth $1.89 billion to Alaska in 2017.
Almost half that – about $906 million – is linked to the 634,000 tourists who came to Denali. Only $238 million came from the cruiseship passengers who daily swamped Skagway on summer days, but then retreated to the boats and left.
The Skagway park, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve to the south-west, and the Sitka National Historic Park further south are economic engines in the Alaska Panhandle, and those parks plus three-road accessible parks – Denali, Kenai Fjords National Park and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve – account for about 85 percent of the economic bang of national parks in Alaska.
The Park Service did try to spin up the bright side for rural Alaska in a press release.
“Aniakchak is the least-visited unit in the national park system, but it makes a positive contribution to the economy of the Bristol Bay region,” the statement quoted Superintendent Mark Sturm saying. “National park tourism is a significant driver in the national economy, returning $10 for every $1 invested in the National Park Service, and it’s a big factor in our local economy as well. We appreciate the partnership and support of our neighbors and are glad to be able to give back by helping to sustain local communities.”
For Aniakchak to return $10 for ever $1 invested, the Park Service would have to hold its spending there to $11,220 per year. That might cover the costs of a few quick visits by a lone ranger.
As most Alaskans know, passage of ANILCA in 1980 doubled the amount of land under the control of the National Park Service in the U.S. The parks bill came after almost a decade of political in-fighting that at times stopped barely short of violence in the north.
At the end there was an uneasy compromise between those who wanted to save the last frontier and those who wanted to develop it. The former celebrated more than the latter when ANILCA passed, but neither side was all that happy.
“Lovers of Congressional drama will be happy to know we are beginning today the revival of that great, old, off-Broadway production know as the ‘Great Alaska Lands Bill,”’ the late Rep. Morris Udall joked not so jokingly in opening a hearing on ANILCA in 1979. “Some other titles have been suggested: ‘The Great Lockup,’ ‘The Dig, Dam, Rape and Plunder’ bill and others.”
Environmentalists at the time were of the opinion the 402,000 residents of the country’s northernmost state had already received enough land, or more than enough land, with the 104-million-acre entitlement of the Alaska Statehood Act in 1958, plus another 44 million acres placed in private, corporate ownership after passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971.
The Claims Act set the stage for the conservation lands battle with Section 17, d-2, which earmarked 80 million acres for study as parks, refuges and national forests. The 80 million grew to more than 100 million over the years that followed and the battle came to be known simply as “D-2.”
Too much, too little
Statehood had already given the handful residents of Alaska control over about twice as much land as was under the control of the hordes of California, the country’s third largest state. But even after the Statehood and the Native Claims acts, 276 million acres of federal land remained in Alaska – enough property to create more than two Californias or almost three Montanas.
Alaskans generally pressed for those lands to remain open to “multiple-use” under the Bureau of Land Management or the National Forest Service, both of which allow the construction of roads and more: mines, logging, oil drilling and grazing.
Environmentalists, most of them Outside but a few in Alaska, pushed for greater protection by placing land in parks and wildlife refuges. In the end, the acted created 10 new parks and expanded three old parks to bring 43.6 million acres of the state under park control. Another 53.8 million acres went into wildlife refuges.
One of the arguments for preservation at the time was that the protected lands would be of greater value to Alaska in the form of tourism going forward than in terms of timber, oil and mineral development. It was hoped by some in Alaska that at least some of the parks might provide a tourism boost for the rural areas of the state lacking any real economy.
That might still come to pass someday, but to date eight of the 10 new parks remain little visited and economically stagnant. The only two new parks to provide a real economic lift are the road-connected ones – Kenai Fjords near the end of the Seward Highway at the head of Resurrection Bay about 125 miles from Anchorage, and the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve between the Richardson Highway and the U.S.-Canada border about 180 miles east of the state’s largest city.
Wrangell-St. Elias in 2017 attracted only 68,300 visitors, but had an economic output of $153 million. Visitors to the 13.2-million-acre park spent an estimated $105 million, most of it on transportation and lodging. It is long drive down mediocre roads to the two communities within the park – McCarthy in the south and Nabesna in the north – and people who make the drive usually plan to spend some time at the end of the road.
The costs of getting to the park helped boost Wrangell’s economic output significantly above that of easily accessible Kenai Fiords, a drive of only about two and a half hours south from Anchorage on a well-maintained, national scenic highway. The 304,000 visitors to Kenai Fjords in 2017 more than quadrupled the visitation of Wrangell, but generated only $78.9 million in economic output.
Just shy of half the $53.5 mllion Seward tourists spent went to recreation industries with another 31 percent going to restaurants. A lot of people drive from Anchorage to Seward, get on a sightseeing ship, tour the part of the park fronting the Gulf of Alaska, have dinner in Seward, and drive back to the city.
Together, Wrangell-St. Elias and Kenai Fiords accounted for an estimated $184 million of economic output or more than half of the estimated $364 million for all of the new parks combined.
The others from economic performance first to worst in 2017:
- Lake Clark National Park and Preserve west of Anchorage on the other side of the Aleutian Range mountains where 22,800 visitors spent an estimated $34.9 million to produce an estimated economic output of $50.9 million.
- Noatak National Preserve in Northwest Alaska where 17,000 visitors spent $26.1 million to generate an economic output of $38.1 million.
- Kobuk Valley National Park in Northwest Alaska: 15,500 visitors, $23.8 million spent, an economic output of $34.7 million.
- Cape Krusenstern National Monument in Northwest Alaska: 15,000 visitors, $23 million spent, an economic output of $33.6 million.
- Gates of the Arctic National Parks and Preserve in far northern Alaska: 11,200 visitors, $17 million spent, an estimated economic output of $25 million.
- Bering Land Bridge National Preserve in Northwest Alaska: 2,640 visitors, $4.1 million spent, an economic output of $5.9 million.
- Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve along the Yukon River near the Canadian border: 952 visitors, $696,00 spent, $1 million in economic output.
- Aniakchak on the Alaska Peninsula: 100 visitors, $77,200 spent, $112,000 in economic output.
Some rural Alaska communities do, however, get an especially big bang out of the national parks. Tourism is the Skagway economy and Kotzebue, a regional hub in Northwest Alaska, gets a big boost by having three parks – Bering Land Bridge, Cape Krusenstern and Kobuk Valley, plus part of Gates of the Arctic, headquartered out of the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in that community.
Overall, the economic value of park tourism business in Alaska ties the state with North Carolina – home to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the countries most popular national parks – for nationl park visitor spending.
California where the mobs bring the money. The Park Service run Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Yosemite National Park generate more than $1 billion in economic output; they also attract almost 20 million tourists.
That’s more than 10 times the number of tourists who visited the entire state of Alaska last year, and Golden Gate and Yosemite are but two of a total of 34 park units, most of them small, in California.
California is so overrun with tourists that even ominously named Death Valley National Park attracts more than twice as many people as Denali, but those tourist don’t spend nearly as much as the visitors to Alaska.
Denali tourists, according to the study, contribute more than $1,400 per head to the Alsaka economy; for Death Valley, the number is only about $106 per warm body.