SALT LAKE CITY — Even though Arizona is home to the iconic Grand Canyon, Utah surpassed its southern neighbor to place as the No. 5 state in the country for visitor spending at national parks, bringing in $1.1 billion in 2016.
The National Park Service reports record visitation of 331 million visitors at park service sites across the country, generating nearly $35 billion to the nation's economy in 2016.
"National Parks are America’s treasure which provide magnificent outdoor recreation opportunities and serve as economic engines for local communities," said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
"In my own hometown of Whitefish, Montana, I saw how the popularity of Glacier National Park led to growth of the local outdoor rec and eco-tourism industry. And while traveling to Sequoia and Kings Canyon last week, it was exciting to see tourism towns dotting the road to the park," Zinke said.
The park service released its annual peer-reviewed economic analysis of the agency's 417 units Wednesday, detailing their impact on so-called gateway communities.
The report notes that more than 270,000 jobs were supported by visitor spending in 2016 in communities located within 60 miles of a park.
In Utah, some 14.4 million visitors supported nearly 18,000 jobs and led to nearly $547 million in labor income.
Of the $1.1 billion spent by visitors, 35 percent went to hotels, 20 percent went to restaurants and another 11 percent was spent on gas.
“This report is a testament to the tangible economic benefits our parks bring to communities across the nation. Visitation numbers continue to rise because people want to experience these majestic public lands," Zinke said.
Jay Kinghorn, director of communications and digital strategy for the Utah Office of Tourism, said the report's numbers speak to the state's growing appeal as a tourist destination.
"It is really positive to be able to quantify the economic impact of the national parks. We know they are integral to the state’s brand, and this helps to show that Utah is really top of mind for travelers planning their vacation destinations," Kinghorn said.
California earned the No. 1 spot in the nation for visitor spending at parks, logging $2 billion. Utah finished behind Alaska and North Carolina, and tied with Virginia. It had more in visitor spending than Arizona, Wyoming, Washington, the District of Columbia, New York and Tennessee, which had $665 million in visitor spending for 2016.
The record visitation to national parks, monuments and historic sites comes even as the park service is struggling under the massive weight of nearly $12 billion in unfunded maintenance.
In a statement accompanying the release of the 2016 economic report, Zinke said it is time for the park service to focus on beefing up infrastructure and accessibility.
"In the coming years, we will look at ways to make innovative investments in our parks to enhance visitor experiences and improve our aging infrastructure," he said. "To ensure visitors continue to have great experiences, we will remain focused on increasing access and addressing the maintenance backlog to ensure we are on the right track for generations to come.”
In February, state transportation crews finished installing a new traffic signal on U.S. 191 at the turnoff into Arches National Park to alleviate visitor congestion that threatens public safety.
Zion National Park just this week released an environmental assessment on a proposal to reconfigure the South Monument Entrance site to boost public safety, reduce traffic congestion and improve the visitor experience.
But even as those improvements are made or contemplated, the national parks, monuments and historic sites in Utah are left grappling with maintenance problems that need to be addressed.
Zion National Park, as an example, is dealing with aging facilities and trails that need to be maintained, and other parks have a list of maintenance needs as well.
Kinghorn said the growing tourism industry in Utah is something that is being tracked closely for a number of reasons.
"We are sensitive to making sure that visitors come to the parks and that visitor experience is a positive one," he said. "It is a very fine balance that we are trying to strike, and it is one that will take all of us in tourism to work hard to get right."