Park Tourism Is a Breath of Fresh Air for California

Times Staff Writer

From the towering coast redwoods to the granite cliffs of Yosemite, California is known for its scenic wonders, particularly in the state's national parks.

The state has 23 destinations administered by the National Park Service, including national monuments and historic sites.

But those national treasures have more going for them than just good looks. A new study finds that California's national parks pump more than $1 billion annually into the state and local economies.

Yosemite's 3.4 million annual visitors funnel $320 million into the local economy, supporting 8,800 jobs. Sequoia-Kings Canyon's 1.2 million tourists contribute $98 million and 2,400 jobs. Even the most remote parks pay dividends: The 500,000 visitors to Mojave National Preserve contribute more than $5 million and support 121 jobs.

"These places are the soul of America and the heart of many local economies," said Courtney Cuff of the National Parks Conservation Assn., a nonpartisan advocacy organization that produced the report. "They're not just places of amazing natural beauty. They also help put food on the table in many gateway communities."

The study comes as Congress passed legislation last week that park advocates say falls far short of what is needed to ensure that the nation's sanctuaries of nature are adequately staffed and preserved. An appropriations bill headed to President Bush's desk boosts park funding by $55 million nationwide, but park advocates say an increase of more than $170 million is needed.

Advocates long have maintained that the national parks have been operating on only two-thirds of the needed funding -- an annual shortfall of more than $600 million. That has meant a lack of services, reduced public education programs and deteriorating structures.

In California, the real-world effects can be seen in every park. Yosemite no longer has campfire talks for visitors. At Lassen Volcanic National Park, the interpretive staff has been cut by half. Mojave National Preserve doesn't have enough money to hire staff to stop poaching, illegal off-road use, hazardous dumping and the theft of archeological artifacts. At Sequoia, four backcountry ranger stations have been closed.

The National Parks Conservation Assn.'s report looked at 10 parks in California, using a conservation economic model developed by Michigan State University that measures the benefits of visitor spending.

The survey did not include National Park Service employees in determining how many jobs were supported by the parks.

Redwood National Park on the North Coast receives about 400,000 visitors who pump $14.5 million into the local economy, the report found. At Lassen, 375,000 visitors support 275 jobs and add $11.8 million.

Joshua Tree National Park visitors spend $46.3 million and support 1,115 jobs. Dee Thompson, Chamber of Commerce director in nearby Twentynine Palms, calls the park "our trusted neighbor and friend."

Scott Munger's seven-room bed-and-breakfast inn in the Sierra Nevada community of Lemon Cove, population 190, is booked by more than 3,500 people each year. The main reason? Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks are just 16 miles up the road.

In San Benito County, the sheer cliffs of Pinnacles National Monument have made it a rock climber's paradise -- and an economic plum for entrepreneurs like Robert Munio, who runs Epic Adventures Rock Climbing.

"As a main destination for our rock-climbing classes, it is extremely valuable for our business," Munio said of the national park. "This place is really a precious gem."

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