National Wildlife Refuge System

National Wildlife Refuges Pay Their Communities Back

Sandhill cranes at Lake Andes Refuge, SD
Sandhill cranes at Lake Andes Refuge, SD
Credit: Gary Zahm

National wildlife refuges — public lands set aside to conserve American wildlife and wildlife habitat — not only offer outstanding wildlife viewing and public recreation, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said Wednesday. They also stimulate local economies.

“Americans know national wildlife refuges are public treasures that protect imperiled species and improve public health and recreation” said the Secretary, speaking at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on the 109th birthday of the National Wildlife Refuge System. “They may not be as aware that these same refuges where they love to fish, to hunt, to hike and see wildlife are powerful economic engines that give back far more dollars to the community than they receive in appropriations.” Refuges also benefit their communities in other critical ways, he said.

As an example, the Secretary pointed to John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, just 11 miles away. The refuge, located wholly within Philadelphia city limits, each year plays host to 8,000 inner-city schoolkids whom it teaches about nature. John Heinz Refuge staff run one of the Refuge System’s largest paid youth employment programs, recruiting some 75 city youngsters for summer jobs in and around Philadelphia. 

The refuge also attracts more than 125,000 other visitors each year — to fish, to hike or to birdwatch. For the local community, visitors mean revenue. The refuge generated $2 in local economic effects for every $1 it was appropriated, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2007 analysis called Banking on Nature.  An updated analysis is expected by 2013.

“John Heinz Refuge is a terrific model of some of the many  ways in which refuges improve the quality of life, economically and otherwise,” said Secretary Salazar.  

In much the same way, the Secretary said, national wildlife refuges boost business in local communities across the country. The Refuge System recorded 45 million refuge visits last year. The more visitors enjoy birding or hunting or hiking at some of the Refuge System’s 556 refuges, the more sales rise in nearby restaurants, hotels, shops and gas stations. 

Data from local tourism bureaus and chambers of commerce confirm the link. 

According to an October 2011 report commissioned by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit conservation organization, refuges and other natural lands managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service generated about $4.2 billion in economic activity and supported more than 32,000 jobs in 2010. 

The 2007 Banking on Nature report found that more than 34.8 million visits to refuges in fiscal year 2006 generated “$1.7 billion in sales, almost 27,000 jobs, and $542.8 million in employment income in regional economies.”

New data show how three popular refuges — one in the desert Southwest, one on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, and one in the Midwest heartland — help their local economies. The three are Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, and Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in Illinois. 

Every winter, tens of thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese flock to the desert oasis of Bosque del Apache Refuge, Wildlife enthusiasts follow. The refuge’s annual Festival of the Cranes in November draws up to 10,000 people in just one week. In sparsely populated Socorro County, with fewer than three people per square mile, that presence is felt. Local businesses vie to piggyback onto festival events, luring visitors with concerts, tours and art shows. 

“Definitely, Bosque del Apache is the largest of our tourism attractions and economic generators,” says Terry Tadano, executive director of the Socorro County Chamber of Commerce and a former deputy manager of the refuge. As a destination site, he says, the 57,000-acre refuge outdraws the area’s ghost towns, fishing and hunting sites, a Civil War fort, a historic cattle drive-away, and a radio astronomy observatory, “Bosque is still number one of all those sites combined.”

Joe Ruiz, manager of the Best Western Hotel in Socorro, appreciates the uptick in business from Bosque’s Festival of the Cranes. “Folks enjoy being out there [on the refuge]…We put up information [about the festival] on our marquis without being asked.”

Preliminary findings from a new U.S. Geological Survey report on refuge visitation show that in 2010,  nonlocal visitors (93 percent) to Bosque del Apache Refuge spent an average of $64 per person per day in the local area; local visitors (7 percent) spent an average of $41 per person per day.

How does that spending add up? In 2011, the refuge’s 165,000-plus visitors spent more than $5 million during their stay, estimate U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service economists, based on data in the National Survey of Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. This spending, in turn, generated more than $7.6 million worth of state economic activity and supported 94 jobs outside the refuge. 

Winter is also high season for J.N. “Ding” Darling Refuge on Florida’s Sanibel Island, famed for its abundance of birds, including white pelicans, roseate spoonbills, anhingas and wood storks. More than 700,000 people visit each year — many of them “snow birds” from New York, Chicago, Minneapolis and other northern cities. 

“The refuge is one of Sanibel Island’s top two visitor destinations,” says Sanibel City manager Judy Zimomra. (The other is Thomas Edison’s home.) Spending by refuge visitors, which the Service estimated at nearly $14 million in 2011, helps sustain island hotels, restaurants and shops, she says. The dollars also percolate into the rest of Lee County, hard hit by the housing bubble collapse of 2007. There they generate another $26 million in economic activity and support an estimated 264 jobs, say Service economists.

Beaches rank first among activities enjoyed by Lee County visitors in 2010, according to the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. Nonetheless, 24 percent of 2,440 visitors surveyed reported  “watching wildlife” ; 16 percent reported “birdwatching”; 17 percent reporting visiting “Ding” Darling Refuge.

 “We’re very happy to have ‘Ding’ Darling Refuge here,” says Raynaud Bentley, one of the managers at Doc Ford's Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille, a nearby restaurant. The refuge, he estimates, “probably accounts for at least 10 to 15 percent” of the eatery’s lunchtime business.  Lunch-goers include visitors who tour the refuge by bicycle. “When they’re finished biking, they come here to eat,” says Bentley, “so it works out real well.”

High visitor numbers to “Ding” Darling Refuge boost the local economy one more way, says Zimomra. “Our feeder market for our housing stock is very much based on people visiting the island first. It’s not at all  uncommon for people to visit the island, visit the refuge and then make this their second home or retirement home,” she says.

At Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in Williamson County, Ill., it’s always high season. Summer is popular with boaters and campers.  Hunters prefer fall and winter. For anglers, the best biting is in spring.

“Outdoor recreation is very large here,” says Shannon Johnson, executive director of the Williamson County Tourism Bureau. All told, some 750,000 people visit the refuge each year, and refuge recreation programs generate millions for the local tourism economy, according to the refuge.

When fishing is good at Crab Orchard Refuge, sales are good at Cooksey’s Bait Shop, a fixture in Marion, Ill. since 1962. “A good 60 percent of our business comes from the refuge,” says owner Ron Reed.

Crab Orchard Refuge also hosts an industrial program (defense contractor General Dynamics is the biggest lessee) that pumps another $40 million a year into the local economy.

Besides the celebrated fishing and hunting, the refuge’s location makes it a go-to destination. Southern Illinois University, with some 20,000 students, is nearby. St. Louis is two hours away; Louisville, Nashville and Memphis are a bit further.

The refuge courts outdoor enthusiasts with five annual fishing tournaments and several smaller “fish-offs”; it also holds special hunts for youth and people with disabilities. Every year, 30,000 visitors come over one week alone — for National Hunting and Fishing Days, the fourth weekend in September. Staff count visitors both  electronically and manually, to know how many come to see wildlife (330,000), to fish (175,000), or to hunt (25,000).

In 2011, refuge visitors spent an estimated $7.9 million, generating $15 million in local trade and supporting 150 jobs outside the refuge, according to Service economists. 

“With tournaments and wildlife observers, [visitors] definitely have to buy gas and get lunch, and stop at Walmart’s. The ladies are going to all of our antique stores,” says Johnson. “[The refuge] definitely is a draw for people to our area.”

Who said nature doesn’t pay?

Last updated: March 15, 2012