Cash cows


Buses line up in Skagway waiting to haul their tourist cargo to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in the Alaska Panhandle city/Steve Anderson via Wikimedia Commons

Almost 3 million people visited Alaska’s national parks and preserves last year, and if a new study out from the National Park Service can be believed, they were worth $678.02 per head to the Alaska economy.

When it comes to overall economic punch, California national park units – the overly popular Yosemite National Park, heavily visited Alcatraz historic area, always busy Golden Gate National Recreation Area, oversize Death Valley National Park and more – generate almost as twice as much money as the national parks and preserves of the far north.

But on a per capita basis not even the revenue-leading parks of Calfornia come close to the tourism goldmine that is Alaska. The 39.9 million visitors to California’s parks in 2018 were worth a comparatively measly $67.67 per person to the economy of The Golden State, about a tenth of what Alaska tourists are worth, according to the study.

To get some idea as to how valuable national park tourists in Alaska, consider busy Arizona which comes in third behind California and Alaska in revenue generated by park visitors. Park tourists pumped $1.3 billion into the Arizona economy last year, just slightly less than the $1.4 billion of Alaska, the study said, but it took 12.9 million visitors – more than four times as many as in Alaska – to generate that revenue.

If Alaska tourism was running at the Arizona level, the park visitor business would be an $8.7 billion per year economic juggernaut at 2018 values. As it is, the industry appears to have moved into the position of the state’s second most profitable industry behind oil.

The 2018 salmon catch was valued at $595.2 million, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. That is the ex-vessel value – the price paid fishermen – and the value of the fish are generally considered to increase two to two-and-a-half times after processing.

Even with that multiplier, however, national park tourism alone in 2018 appeared to about equal the “first wholesale” value for Alaska’s salmon harvests, and park tourism is only one component of the Alaska tourism business, albeit a foundational part.

Denali National Park and Preserve – the 6-million-acre wilderness surrounding North American’s tallest peak – was attracting visitors even before it became a federal reserve in 1917. But park tourism in the state really began to take off not long before passage ofthe Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation of Act (ANILCA) of 1980.

ANILCA focused a lot of national attention on the state, and with its passage the size of the national park system in the U.S. more than doubled. Overnight, the Alaska parks collectively became the crown jewels of American wildland preservation

Proud as punch

National Park officials were predictably crowing about the new economic figures on Thursday.

“This year’s report shows that tourism to national parks continues to be an important part of the national economy and a significant economic engine for Alaska,” Parks Regional Director Bert Frost said in a widely distributed media statement.

As an agency, the National Park Service in Alaska still wrestles with its image instate. The agency is sometimes seen as overbearing and elitist.

For a dozen years up until a U.S. Supreme Court decision in March, the agency was engaged in a very public and high-profile dispute with an elderly, Alaska moose hunter over access to the very remote Nation River near the Canadian border in Central Alaska.

The agency told John Sturgeon he couldn’t use a 10-foot-long hovercraft to travel up and down the seasonally shallow river because under Park Service regulations it didn’t qualify as a “boat.” Sturgeon protested that the waterway within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National  Preserve didn’t even belong to the park.

By law, the river had been judged “navigable,” and thus the lands beneath it passed to the state with passage of the Alaska Statehood Act of 1958.  Given that and the fact the hovercraft was the environmentally friendliest way to use the shallow river during the moose hunting season, Sturgeon, the former state forester, protested a ranger’s decision he couldn’t use his watercraft on the Nation as he had been using it for years.

Park officials told Sturgeon too bad. Despite special access provisions written into ANILCA to protect the unique means of getting into the state’s roadless parks, they backed the ranger’s position that a national law banning hovercraft from all park service lands and for that reason, Sturgeon was screwed.

His answer was to sue. Along the way, he enlisted the support of thousands of Alaskans to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars it cost to fight Uncle Sam.

The dispute went to the Supreme Court twice. The first time the high court overruled the Park Service’s action, but sent the case back to the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California to resolve some fine points in the litigation. The Ninth Circuit promptly ruled that Park Service had the authority to do just about anything it wanted in Alaska.

Sturgeon appealed to the Supreme Court once again. Though it is rare for the court to hear the same case twice, it took this one on for the second time and delivered a unanimous and pointed rebuke to the Park Service.

Alaska became a state, Justice Elena Kagan wrote in that opinion, after territorial residents tired of the constraints of living as “tenants upon the estate of the national landlord.”

Alaska – not the federal government – held the power to decide how its navigable waterways were used, she said in an opinion that placed Sturgeon in the pantheon of Alaska Statehood advocates who sought greater independence from that federal landlord.

“You might catch a glimpse of some former-day John Sturgeons—who (for better or worse) sought greater independence from federal control and, in the process, helped to shape the current law,” she wrote, noting how Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening had in 1955 called on the federal government to “end American colonialism.”

Alaskans, Gruening told the Alaska Constitutional Convention of 1955 were tired of the “discriminations and exclusions to which we are subject have been unheeded by the colonialism that has ruled Alaska for 88 years. The people of Alaska have never ceased to object to these impositions even though they may not have realized that such were part and parcel of their colonial status. Indeed the full realization that Alaska is a colony may not yet have come to many Alaskans, nor may it be even faintly appreciated by those in power who perpetuate our colonial servitude.”

Freedom-loving Alaskans

Especially in Central Alaska, the Park Service is still sometimes, off-and-on viewed as the last of the colonial overlords. The agency’s behavior was put on trial in Fairbanks in 2011 in a case involving a 70-year-old boater who Yukon River rangers tried to stop for a boat check.

The late Jim Wilde, instead, swore at them and kept motoring upriver. The rangers gave chase, pointed a loaded shotgun at Wilde, his wife and a passenger as their riverboats bounced side-by-side up the river, and when Wilde beached his boat on the nearby riverbank wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him and hauled him off to jail in far-off Fairbanks.

At an eventual trial in Fairbanks,  Wilde attorney Bill Satterberg asked park ranger Ben Grodjesk if this was standard treatment for visitors to the Yukon-Charley preserve. Grodjesk said no, which led to a testy exchange between the ranger and the attorney, who wanted to know about another Alaskan reportedly put in handcuffs at the Nation River and held that way for hours.

Did that happen, Satterberg asked.

“Yes,” said Grodjesk, who added that he didn’t recall for how long.

Why was he held at all, Satterberg wanted to know.

“I did not know who he was,” Grodjesk said. “I attempted to talk to him. He tried to leave.”

“Why did you handcuff him again,” Satterberg asked.

“Failure to identify himself,” Grodjesk said.

“How old was this man?”

“Forty-five, 50,” Grodjesk said.

The man was never identified in court, but it was revealed he was in held in handcuffs for two to four hours while Grodjesk engaged in a series of discussions with park headquarters via satellite phone.  The man was eventually released. Satterberg wanted to know why.

“I was able to identify him,” Grodjesk said. It was never determined how long Grodjesk planned to hold the man if his identification had not become known. The trial also revealed the Park Service manufactured evidence as part of its effort to convict Wilde of interfering with a government agent engaged in an official duty, violating a lawful order by a park ranger and operating an unregistered boat.

Against the backdrop of these sorts of problems, the federal agency has increasingly tried to point out the economic value of the parks. And there is no doubt parks are big business in Alaska. The agency itself spends more than $100 million per year in the state to administer and maintain 17 park units, among them the largest national park in the country.

“Alaska’s national parks are world treasures and people from across the country as well as around the globe come here to experience them,” Frost said in his statement. “Whether they are local residents who bring their families to Denali for the weekend, or first-time visitors from abroad who come to see Katmai’s famous bears, all of Alaska’s parks provide superlative experiences to visitors, who also happen to spend some money along the way. This year’s report shows that tourism to national parks continues to be an important part of the national economy, and a significant economic engine for Alaska.”

What the Park Service touted as a “peer-reviewed visitor spending analysis” found $20.2 billion spent at the national level by more than 318 million park visitors in communities within 60 miles of a national park. That spending was said to support 329,000 jobs and produce a net economic benefit of $40.1 billion.

The net economic output for Alaska was pegged at $2 billion with the parks credited with supporting 17,800 jobs.

The biggest number of those – 4,460 jobs – spun off into secondary effects derived by businesses not directly dependent on parks, but the parks were directly reported to support 3,960 jobs in the recreation industry and another 3,160 jobs in the transportation industry with the rest of the employment scattered across hotels, restaurants, retail, camping, grocery and gas categories in diminishing order.


7 replies »

  1. Bicycles are Coming. And going where they want, in National Parks.

    And with them will come the belated recognition of the need for Trails.

    “Window lick” tourism, as Steve Stine colorfully identifies it below, is not consistent with the Organic Act of 1916, establishing the legal basis of the National Park Service, and defining the nature of the service that Park-lands and the Service would render to the Public.

    Parks deluded themselves, with their Gun Ban. They continue to delude themselves, that a Look But Don’t Touch policy fullfills their Duty and the written Law.

    The day the Gun Ban went down, bicyclists knew their day is Coming.

  2. What about Alaskan State Parks? If i remember correctly, visitation to State parks is higher than national parks, in Alaska.
    Oddly enough, there was no mention of wolves in this article and how they impact tourism to national parks.(hehe)

    • Al,
      There are not many wolves left to see AK after all the trapping (with lack of buffer zones around parks), aerial shooting and predator control measures in place throughout the state.
      You should know this better than most…
      Americans have a better chance of seeing wolves in Yellowstone than Denali today.
      As salmon fishing closures continue in June up and down the Park’s Highway…
      Tourists will just “window lick” as they travel past local economies on their way to the Princess Lodge of their choice…

  3. I probably don’t understand what makes up per capita number but I would think Alaska’s is distorted because of the transportation disadvantaged of getting here. Most visitors buy a plane or cruise ticket (from Seattle Airlines or Carnival plc) to visit National Parks here. I think Gruening would conclude colonialism is alive and prospering in Alaska’s tourism sector (and overall private sector economy) because the wealth created here doesn’t reside here.

  4. Fascinating….first time I had ever heard that, but I had my own problems with one of those summer park rangers once…he was a lucky man….had to stop in Denali to take a shower after an unfortunate incident on the highway….a ranger from God knows where whomhad been in Denali for a week and thought he was the head of the kingdom..

    • Bonnie: There are good rangers, and there are bad rangers. But my general impression over the years has been that the NPS sometimes falls down in teaching its employees the value of “customer service.”

      I have a lot of friends in the NPS. They have sometimes led me to believe that it is an agency where the double-standards have double-standards. They harass some folks over petty things, as sounds like the case with you, and in other cases let people get away with outrageous behavior.

      Timmy Treadwell at Katmai comes immediately to mind. The NPS knew well what was going on there, but let it continue because he was a “friend.” As a result, Timmy got not only himself killed but the poor, innocent woman who happened to be with him when he ran into the bear he couldn’t intimidate.

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