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Parks And Local Economies—Observations From Glacier National Park


Visitors and local businesses alike were happy to see the Going-to-the-Sun Road open for the season on July 3, 2014. Photo by Jim Burnett

A recent article in the Traveler highlighted a report that describes the economic impact of NPS areas on "local communities, states and the nation." While some will quibble about the methodology used or the accuracy of the numbers, there's no question that parks are an important factor in  the economy of nearby communities. I was reminded just how much that's the case during a recent visit to Glacier National Park.

It was easy to start a conversation anywhere in the area at the end of June with a simple question: "What do you hear about the road opening?" At Glacier, it isn't even necessary to clarify which road.

The star attraction for many visitors to Glacier is the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the spectacular mountain highway that bisects the park, passing sparkling lakes and clinging to rocky cliffs as it winds up and over the Continental Divide at Logan Pass.  

Late Season Winter Storm Delays Opening of the Sun Road

This was a tough year for the crews working to open the famed scenic drive for the summer, for visitors looking forward to the trip, and for the area economy. A late season storm dumped heavy snow and torrential rain on the park in mid-June, just as the park was on the verge of swinging open the gates for the entire length of the road through the center of the park.

As a result, much of the drive wasn't ready for prime time until the morning of July 3, so there was plenty of anticipation—and pent-up demand—by  visitors and locals alike.

My wife and I arrived in the area on Sunday, June 29, for a six-night stay, split between the west and east sides of the park. For the first four days of our visit, before the scenic drive was open from end to end, we had an almost identical experience and conversation in every local business we patronized, whether it was a restaurant, grocery store, gas station or lodging establishment.

"Yeah, it's a bit slow right now...but things will pick up as soon as the Sun Road opens!"

A bit slow indeed. Check-out lines at registers were short (or non-existent), there was no wait for a table in restaurants (including one with a great mountain view for lunch in the dining room at the Many Glacier Hotel), and "vacancy" signs were on display at several cabin and motel operations.

Opening The Road Made Quite a Difference

What a difference a day makes, when the day in question marks the opening of The Road.

Thursday, July 3, was D-Day for the 2014 season at Glacier, with "D" indicating that visitors could finally drive the Sun Road from end to end. The morning was off to a rather disappointing start, with low clouds and the threat of rain, but by noon the sun was out, the parking lot "up top" at Logan Pass was full, and parking spaces at pullouts and trailheads all along the road were at a premium.

That evening, and the next, there was a wait for a table at the same local restaurant near St. Mary where we had our choice of seating the night before. Tourists were lined up three deep at the check-out at the local grocery, and "no vacancy" signs were back up at most lodging establishments.

Sure, it was the beginning of a holiday weekend, but a big key, in both local optimism and smiles on visitor faces, was the opening of The Road.

July and August Tourism Is Key to the Local Economy

The owner of the small, family-run cabin business where we spent several nights echoed my conversations with the proprietor of a B&B where we stayed earlier in the week, and with the manager of a local restaurant: the bulk of their annual income had to be earned during the peak visitor season in July and August.

Later in July, we spent two nights at a B&B near Yellowstone, and a second, similar establishment south of Grand Teton National Park. Part of the fun of stays at these small lodgings is the chance for personal conversations with the owners, and the theme in every case was the same: park tourism was the backbone of their business.

Do the above comments have any statistical validity in terms of the national or local economy? Of course not. They are simply observations, but for those who unfortunately feel the need to validate the worth of parks in terms of economics, it seems pretty clear that these national treasures are also the not-so-little economic "engines that could."  


. . .  for those who unfortunately feel the need to validate the worth of parks in terms of economics, it seems pretty clear that these national treasures are also the not-so-little economic "engines that could." 

Nice encapsulation.

No doubt the parks help their local communities.  Whether this is additive to the economy overall or just draws business from other markets is still questionable  But I am with you, their economic impact is not the reason for their existance. 

Besides working for a government agency or living off tourism, there's not a whole to do in areas near National Parks (at least out west).  Growing marijuana seems to be the main alternative to earning money now that logging has been limited.

If you don't like engaging in the outdoors, then yes, living around tourism based towns is not for the average joe.  But, you can have a nice living in those areas if you know what you are doing.  It's not for everyone, by any means.

Making a living in rural tourism based towns is tough slogging, NPs or otherwise, based on what I learned from hanging out with people from around lake Tahoe.  Obviously, without the tourists, there'd be virtually no economy.

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