While it's impossible to put a dollar value on towering peaks, pristine forests and America's cultural history, a new report suggests that the country's national parks have an economic impact that extends beyond their boundaries.
Released on Monday, the report from the National Park Service states that recreational visits to the 401 units of the National Park System in 2012 resulted in $14.7 billion in spending in "gateway" communities — those within 60 miles of a park. Factoring in the secondary effects of that spending, those expenditures supported 243,000 jobs and contributed $26.8 billion to the national economy.
"Our parks are economic engines for local communities," said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. "They support business ranging from motels and restaurants to gas stations and tour companies and, of course, the people who work in those businesses."
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As the owner of TMC Vacation Rentals in Packwood, Wash., Maree Lerchen is among them. Located seven miles from the southwest entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, the remote community also offers access to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
"People often stay for a couple of days to visit Mount Rainier and a couple of days to visit Mount St. Helens," she said. "Without them, we couldn't support our staff and operations. Our business wouldn't exist."
Many gateway communities, in fact, got a glimpse of that possibility last October when the sequester in the nation's capital shut down the government, along with the national parks. The 16-day shutdown, said Jewell, resulted in 8 million fewer visits to the national parks and a loss of $414 million in visitor spending in local communities.
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"The sequester was a reminder of the parks' importance to local economies," said Jewell. "The shutdown cost the parks and nearby communities nearly half a billion dollars in visitor spending. Let's hope we don't ever have to go there again."
—By Rob Lovitt of NBC News