Wisconsin's state parks, outdoor recreation areas, forests and trails serve as important drivers of local economic vitality, according to a recent report that estimates that total spending by Wisconsin state park properties visitors is more than $1 billion a year. The report also found that the State Park System conserves important environmental resource areas that are public legacies.

"Our state parks, forests, trails and recreation areas are truly the jewels of our state's natural resources, and this report shows they are also jewels for our economy," said Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp. "This study shows how important our state park properties are to the local economies of communities across the state that are gateways to these properties."

"Economic Impacts of the Wisconsin State Park System: Connections to Gateway Communities" co-produced by the Wisconsin DNR Bureau of Parks and Recreation and University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension, looks at 69 outdoor recreation sites operated by the Wisconsin parks program.

Key findings of the report included:

  • The Wisconsin State Park System offers a wide variety of activities, such as hiking, camping, boating, skiing, bird watching and all-terrain vehicle use that attracts different types of visitors.
  • In recent years, the park system recorded an average level of 14 million visitor-days per year.
  • Visitors include day-trippers and overnight guests who come from many different locations. Understanding where visitors come from is important in identifying sources of new money flowing into gateway communities near state park properties.
  • On average, individual state forest visitors spent almost $41 per day, state park visitors over $50 a day, while state trails visitors spent over $90 per day.
  • The vast majority of spending — nearly 70 percent — comes from visitors to state parks, which account for 45 of the 69 properties studied.
  • Non-local visitor spending is estimated to exceed $580 million, providing a significant economic stimulus to local private sector businesses.
  • When combined, the local economic impacts of private sector stimulus in the State Park System regions accounted for over 8,200 jobs and $350 million in income for Wisconsin residents.

Jeff Prey, senior planner for Wisconsin state parks and co-author of the report, said the researchers wanted to learn how state-owned properties differed in the recreational opportunities they offered; how different types of visitors spent their money in communities located near the sites; and how visitors contributed to local job creation and income generation.

"We found the economic impacts of the Wisconsin State Park System vary across the state and depend on property and visitor activity type, visitation levels, and local economic conditions," Prey said.

"Each property and its nearby communities offered unique resources and opportunities for people to enjoy," said co-author Dave Marcouiller, chair of the UW-Madison Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

Impacts from the Park System sites, located around the state, were categorized into eight regions based on the Wisconsin State Comprehensive Outdoor recreation Plan: the Great Northwest; the Northwoods; the Upper Lake Michigan Coastal; the Lake Winnebago Waters; the Western Sands; the Mississippi River Corridor; the Southern Gateways; and the Lower Lake Michigan Coastal.

"Total operational funding for our state park system is less than $25 million a year," Stepp said, "so Wisconsin is getting a significant return on its investment from the State Parks System."

"But even more important than their economic value, from the cliffs of Interstate Park overlooking the St. Croix River to the Lake Michigan dunes at Whitefish Dunes State Park, and from the glacial geology of Kettle Moraine State Forest to the breathtaking 165 foot waterfall at Pattison State Park, these properties protect and conserve some of our most valuable natural resource treasures."

"Economic Impacts of the Wisconsin State Park System: Connections to Gateway Communities" is available by searching the DNR website for "parks," and then clicking on the link for "Reports and more" under the "Documents & publications" tab.

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