Skift Take

National parks are a powerful economic engine for the local communities that surround them and their power was given a much-needed spotlight during last year's economic turndown.

Yosemite National Park attracts 4 million people a year, making it a mighty economic engine for nearby mountain communities and beyond.

Just how mighty?

“It’s huge,” said Dan Cunning, CEO of the Oakhurst-based Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau, which serves as the marketing arm for tourism in Madera County.

“In Madera County, which is primarily an agricultural county, tourism is by far the No. 2 economic driver,” he said. “We really depend, especially in eastern Madera County and the mountain communities, on tourism. It’s what it’s all about.”

The newest opportunity for merchants near the park is the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Yosemite Grant Act. It will be formally celebrated on June 30.

The National Park Service estimated that in 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available, visitors to Yosemite spent almost $380 million at businesses operating within the park and in nearby “gateway” communities.

But the effects of those dollars– spent at hotels, motels, restaurants, grocery stores, gasoline stations and souvenir shops — are felt well beyond the park boundaries, to the tune of almost $472 million in employee salaries and other “value added” economic multipliers for Yosemite’s gateway region, defined as communities within 60 miles of the park. That includes such popular jumping-off points as Fresno, Oakhurst and Mariposa.

Across the country, only a few national parks generate more visitor spending for their regions than Yosemite, which began when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864 to preserve the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees — landmark legislation that set the stage for development of national parks in the U.S.

Yosemite’s economic impacts are not lost on its park service leaders.

“It’s an enormous responsibility because the park generates close to $400 million in economic development for the gateway region,” said Don Neubacher, Yosemite’s superintendent. “A lot of these communities depend on tourism, so we do everything possible to work with them to keep that engine going.”

The ripples go even farther afield. A comprehensive July 2009 survey of park visitors revealed that San Francisco was most often identified as the city where tourists from outside the area spent their nights before and after visiting Yosemite — ahead of Fresno, Oakhurst and Mariposa.

Visitors to all of the National Park Service’s national parks, historic parks and recreation areas in California spent an estimated $1.5 billion in 2012. Yosemite alone accounted for about 25% of that.

“Yosemite as a whole is an important component of California tourism” because of its attraction to visitors from across the country and around the world, said Lisa Cesaro, public relations manager for Delaware North Cos. at Yosemite, which operates most of the park’s concessions.

More than 95% of Yosemite visitors come from outside the gateway region, and about one out of four is from outside the U.S., according to the park service. Nonlocals accounted for nearly 99% of the money spent by all visitors in and around the park.

The 2009 survey showed that visitors spent an average of more than $110 per person during their stay inside the park, and more than $242 each while they’re in the gateway area.

Nature’s bounty

DNC, which has held the concessions contract at Yosemite since 1993, is the biggest beneficiary of that spending. Not only is Delaware North the largest concessionaire in the National Park Service system, its Yosemite contract is the single largest agreement at all the park service facilities in the country, with gross revenues estimated at $125 million to $130 million each year.

DNC operates about 1,500 lodging units inside the park, including the Ahwahnee and Wawona hotels and Yosemite Lodge, and cabins and tent cabins at Curry Village, Housekeeping Camp, Tuolumne Meadows and White Wolf lodges and five High Sierra camps.

DNC also runs 25 eateries, from the Ahwahnee’s luxurious upscale dining room to rustic snack bars, as well as 19 retail shops selling groceries and other supplies, apparel and souvenirs.

“Our role is to operate not only the lodgings here within Yosemite, but any of the dining facilities, a lot of the activity centers such as the bike rental stands, the raft rental stands,” Cesaro said. “We also manage the transportation fleet of all the shuttle buses, we do park tours, so it’s a pretty broad variety.”

The biggest share of the money spent by visitors inside the park — about 42% — is for lodging. Restaurants get about 21% of the business. Rounding out the spending were groceries and take-out food, camping fees and charges, admission fees, gasoline, guide fees, recreation/entertainment, and all other types of purchases.

Not all of that money stays with DNC. Under the terms of its contract–which is due to expire and be rebid next year — Delaware North returns 10.2% of its gross revenues to the park service as a franchise fee, Neubacher said.

Mariposa County also reaps the benefits of DNC’s success. “We are the largest employer and taxpayer in the county of Mariposa,” Cesaro said. Mariposa County also charges a transient occupancy tax of 10% on every lodging unit in the county, including those inside the park. “And 25% of the operating budget for Mariposa County comes from the (TOT) taxes generated by DNC in the park,” she added.

Mary Hodson, Mariposa County’s deputy administrative officer, said that the TOT, or bed tax, accounts for about half of the county’s discretionary budget. In the 2013-14 budget year, the TOT was expected to generate $11 million for the county — with DNC’s share representing about 50% of the total.

Outside opportunities

Still, overnight visitors inside Yosemite represent a minority of the park’s tourism. “We have a lot more day-use visitors, and a lot of that is because of capacity,” Cesaro said.

That means there are plenty of opportunities for businesses in the gateway towns to capture their share of tourist dollars.

“We’re very fortunate to have the park as that icon, that draw, that hook, that reason to come to California, and when they stay in our gateway, we prosper by that,” said Cunning, the Oakhurst visitor bureau CEO.

Like Mariposa County, Madera County also collects a transient occupancy tax from hotels in communities including Oakhurst, Coarsegold, Bass Lake and even Madera.

“And that doesn’t take into account the sales tax generated, the food and gasoline that’s purchased,” Cunning said. “The average stay, we can almost say the average expenditure per day per guest is $135 during their vacation time or their visit — that’s for the hotel stay for a family, gas, entrance fees and such.”

Owners of hospitality businesses — hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and gift shops — say Yosemite’s importance to their livelihoods cannot be overstated.

“People want to come to the mountains for the mountain experience, but Yosemite is the destination spot they’re coming to,” said Marlo Burghardt, general manager of the Narrow Gauge Inn hotel and restaurant in the town of Fish Camp, just south of the park.

Burghardt said many mountain businesses rely heavily on the summer tourist season to make their living for the entire year, magnifying the park’s significance to their bottom line. Hotels, for instance, are entirely dependent on visitors for business, and restaurants aren’t far behind.

“Our restaurant definitely relies on the occupancy of the inn,” Burghardt said, adding that the Narrow Gauge Inn’s eatery closes during the slow winter months. “We get a number of local diners who enjoy coming here, but that’s mainly for special events.”

But because the mountain communities are so sparsely populated, she added, “it’s really hard to suggest that a restaurant can only thrive on local customers.”

A few miles down the highway, in Oakhurst, “probably about 90% of our business is customers who are visiting the park,” said Bill Putnam, general manager of the Best Western Plus / Yosemite Gateway Inn. “And that’s going to be true in any of the gateway communities, very definitely. … It’s very definitely trickle-down economics for us.”

Putnam also underscored the seasonal nature of the business. “Our occupancy is about 30% to 40% in the winter, but as much as 99% in the summer,” Putnam said of his 133-room motel. “Quite honestly, if we don’t make our money in the summer, it can be a very tough year. … In the off-season, we break even, but we make our money in the summer.”

Along busy Highway 41 in Oakhurst, map boards on the walls of Reimer’s Candies testify to the international clientele the park has attracted to the shop after just over a year in business.

“There are people from all over the world who put pins in that board,” co-owner Mary Anne Bretz said. “Even one from Iceland. Those world travelers are definitely coming through because of Yosemite.”

Bretz said the original Reimer’s store in Three Rivers has been a success for almost 60 years because it is situated near the entrance to Sequoia National Park. “So we chose Oakhurst because of its proximity to Yosemite,” she said.

Bretz estimated that visitors to the park account for about 25% of the store’s business, adding that the shop has developed a considerable customer base among locals that makes it less dependent on tourist traffic.

Neubacher, the park superintendent, said he is mindful of how sensitive the gateway businesses are to tourism’s seasonality. About half of Yosemite’s 4 million annual visitors come during the four-month summer peak season, “and the rest come during the other eight months of the year,” he said.

“What’s interesting about Yosemite is that we have a lot of visitors in the summer, but there is room to expand visitation during the winter,” he said. “It’s spectacular, so we’re trying to encourage people to come in the winter, to broaden that economic effort even 12 months out of the year.”

When there is snow — something that was in short supply this past winter — Yosemite offers skiing at Badger Pass, snowshoeing, ice skating and other cold-weather sports.

This past winter, Neubacher said, the park offered a film festival to bring people into the park through the gateway region.

“We’re trying to work with the communities to have this regional development so we can enhance that off-peak period.”

Not just tourists

Tourists aren’t the only ones spending money. The park service has a permanent staff of about 600 employees year-round, and Delaware North has about 1,100 year-round workers.

Those numbers swell during the summer to about 1,100 park service employees and as many as 1,800 DNC staff.

And almost all those park and concession workers live in or near the park and rely on the nearby communities for the regular necessities of life in the mountains.

Through the direct payrolls of DNC and the park service, as well as the economic ripples in the region, Neubacher estimated that the park is responsible for about 6,000 jobs.

There’s another measure of how potent Yosemite is for the region’s economy: what happens when it’s not there?

At 1,169 square miles, something the size of Yosemite isn’t going to just up and disappear. But there have been occasions — and not as few and far between as mountain businesses would prefer — when Yosemite might as well have been gone.

Seventeen years ago, massive flooding on the Merced River closed the park for 21/2 months and wrought enough economic havoc to capture the attention of environmental analysts for the United Nations.

“In the most heavily impacted county, Mariposa County, 1997 personal income was reduced by an estimated US $1,159 per capita (US $18 million for the entire county) — a 6.6% decline,” according to a report by the UN’s Environment Programme. “The county was also estimated to have lost US $1.67 million in county occupancy and sales tax revenues, and 956 jobs, a significant number in a county of fewer than 16,000 residents.”

Man-made problems

Mother Nature’s floods, fires, rockslides and road closures aren’t the only problems. Budget stalemates between Congress and the White House have closed Yosemite twice in the past 20 years, first in 1995, and again last year.

Last October, the standoff shuttered the federal government –and the park gates and Yosemite — for 16 days. Over the prior three years, the average number of visitors to the park in October was more than 346,000.

But October 2013 saw fewer than 280,000 visitors come through the park gates — a 19% decline. Visitor spending last October was estimated at less than $28 million, or about $6.7 million less than the three-year average for the month.

“Fortunately, it happened during a time that was not the full season of the summer months, but it still had an effect,” said Hodson, the Mariposa County deputy administrator. “Our (tax) revenue was down at least $200,000.”

The shutdown came on the heels of the Rim fire, which last summer burned more than 257,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada, including about 79,000 acres in Yosemite National Park and kept worried tourists away in droves.

The double-whammy was a signal to mountain communities to examine whether or not they are overly reliant on the park as an economic development tool.

“We had to think about that when the federal government shut the doors and the park was closed,” said Tara Schiff, Mariposa County’s community development coordinator. “We’re a very large and diverse county, and when the park closure happened right after the Rim fire, boom boom, Mariposa, Coulterville, El Portal, Fish Camp, Catheys Valley — we all came together as a community and determined that we had a lot of amenities to offer on our own.”

Mariposa still makes hay as a gateway to Yosemite, but the county also markets its Gold Rush history, wineries, shopping, dining, hiking and bicycling as things for people to do to round out their Yosemite vacation time.

“Yosemite is what draws the biggest number of visitors through the area,” said Hodson. “Mariposa is small and historic, and it has a number of neat shops and businesses that draw visitors, but certainly not 4 million worth.”

Likewise, Oakhurst’s Cunning said there are plenty of things to do outside of Yosemite, but it takes marketing to let visitors know about their options.

“All of our gateways have different offerings,” he said. “We have unbelievable wineries, we have museums, we have the Sugar Pine railway. Bass Lake is a very special place to spend a few days. There’s more here than just a day in Yosemite at the park.”

“But,” he acknowledged, “Yosemite is the big hook, without a doubt.”

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, [email protected] or @TimSheehanNews on Twitter.

(c)2014 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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Tags: national parks, yosemite

Photo credit: The golden light at North lake in Yosemite National Park. Getty Images

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