People who travel to the Blue Ridge Parkway are not just stretching their legs for a hike along its many forested trails, or snapping selfies in front of scenic overlooks.
They are dipping deeply into their wallets.
That’s according to the latest annual economic impact report released by the National Park Service at the end of April. It shows the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park were No. 1 and 2 when it comes to visitor spending and overall economic impact.
But, the parks which are also the most-visited of all 417 national park sites, are facing severe deficits in funding to maintain roads, bridges, buildings, campgrounds, and water, and communication systems. The extent of that deferred maintenance work has drawn sharp criticism and a call to action from national park advocates.
The “2017 National Park Visitor Spending Effects” report shows 16.1 million visitors to the parkway, which covers 469 miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, spent slightly more than $1 billion in communities near the park.
The spending supported 15,400 jobs and had a cumulative economic benefit of $1.4 billion. That is up from $1.3 billion in 2016. But at the same time, the parkway faces nearly a half-billion dollars in deferred maintenance.
Better weather and a longer leaf season contributed to a nearly 6 percent rise in visitation over the 15.2 million visitors counted in 2016. People seeking a front-row view to the total solar eclipse, which darkened the skies across Western North Carolina August 21, also contributed to the increase.
Money spent on a parkway visit has a ripple effect from the smallest towns of Swain and Haywood counties, all the way to Asheville, where it has multiple access points, and appears to be fulfilling its original Depression-era intent to bring people and money to Southern Appalachia.
The National Park Service economic impact report shows the Smokies, which cover a half-million acres across the remote, rugged terrain on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, also added to the livelihood of the region.
In 2017, the report shows, 11.3 million visitors to the Smokies—which tied with the previous year for a record—spent just over $923 million in surrounding communities. That spending supported 14,000 jobs and had a cumulative economic benefit of $1.2 billion.
The deferred maintenance bill for the Smokies, while it ebbs and flows as years-long projects get completed, has not budged much from its current $215 million.
Across the entire park service, more than 330 million visitors in 2017 spent $18.2 billion in communities near national parks, from Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, to the Statue of Liberty in New York City, resulting in a $35.8 billion benefit to the nation’s economy and supporting 306,000 jobs.
According to the report, money is most often spent on lodging, restaurants, gas, groceries, and recreation businesses, such as whitewater rafting and fishing guide services.
While the money supports local jobs, it doesn’t help to repair crumbling tunnels or campground facilities, pay for mowing or renovation to historic structures, or for ranger salaries.
Individual national parks that charge entrance fees keep 80 percent of those funds, but the Smokies and the parkway do not charge entrance fees. Their funding comes from Congress and from private nonprofits such as the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation and Friends of the Smokies, among others.
The price tag for unmet maintenance needs across the national parks has reached $11.6 billion, according to the National Park Service. The parkway has one of the highest maintenance backlogs in the system at $462 million, and the Great Smokies has a backlog of $215 million. Most of that lies in roadwork repairs needed at the two parks built in the 1930s.
The national parks have been severely and dangerously underfunded for years. The money is not there to address high-priority deferred maintenance needs across the system. Since the individual states and local communities and counties receive all the economic benefits, maybe it’s time they stepped up to the plate and allocated significant funds before the deferred maintenance hemorrhages beyond repair.
It should be a common sense investment. The return on investment for the money is ten-fold, so why wouldn’t the local communities and businesses want to invest in these national parks?
What is not started today is never finished tomorrow.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)