National wildlife refuges continue to be strong economic engines for communities across the country, pumping $2.4 billion into the economy and supporting more than 35,000 private–sector jobs in fiscal year 2011, according to a report released this fall by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Our National Wildlife Refuge System is the world’s greatest network of lands dedicated to wildlife conservation but is also an important contributor to our economy, attracting more than 46 million visitors from around the world who support local restaurants, hotels and other businesses,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “Every dollar we invest in our Refuge System and other public lands generates huge dividends for our country.”

The report, titled Banking on Nature, finds refuges contributed an average $4.87 in total economic output for every $1 appropriated and produced nearly $793 million in job income for local communities in fiscal 2011.

“This study shows that national wildlife refuges repay us in dollars and cents even as they enrich our lives by protecting America’s natural heritage and providing great recreation,” said Service Director Dan Ashe.

Wildlife–related recreation fuels much of this economic contribution. The National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife–Associated Recreation, which informs the Banking on Nature report and is published every five years by the Service, found that more than 90 million Americans spent nearly $145 billion pursuing outdoor recreation in 2011.

Among other key findings from Banking on Nature: Spending by refuge visitors generated nearly $343 million in local, county, state and federal tax revenue. Refuges are seen as travel–worthy destinations; 77 percent of refuge spending was by non–local visitors. Non–consumptive activities, such as wildlife viewing, photography and hiking, accounted for 72 percent of visitor spending. Among consumptive uses, fishing accounted for 21 percent and hunting, 7 percent. Refuges showing standout economic returns include:

  • Laguna Atascosa Refuge, TX, where recreational visits produced nearly $30 million in economic effects on a budget of $801,000 — roughly $37 for every $1 in budget expenditure.

  • Wichita Mountains Refuge, OK, where recreational visits produced $174 million in economic effects on a budget of $3.9 million — about $44 for every $1 in budget expenditure.

  • Upper Mississippi River Refuge, MN/WI/IA/IL, where recreational visits generated $226 million in economic effects on a budget of $4.9 million − about $46 for every $1 in budget expenditure.

Refuges that supported the greatest number of jobs were Upper Mississippi River Refuge (1,394 jobs); Wichita Mountains Refuge, OK (1,053); Kenai Refuge, AK (907); and Merritt Island Refuge, FL (467).

The Southeast Region had the most visits (12.4 million) and generated the most jobs (9,455) of any region in fiscal 2011.

The report used 92 refuges for its economic sampling. Per–person spending data were drawn from the 2011 fishing, hunting and wildlife–associated recreation survey and the Service’s fiscal 2011 Refuge Annual Performance Plan (RAPP).

Researchers examined visitor spending in four areas − food, lodging, transportation and other expenses (such as guide fees, land–use fees and equipment rental). Local economies were defined as those within 50 miles of each of the 92 refuges studied. The national estimate was reached by extrapolating results for these 92 refuges to the Refuge System as a whole.