A federal parks and conservation funding bill, the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), has stalled in Congress. The GAOA had bipartisan support in the House and Senate and seemed poised to become law in early March 2020. However, as the coronavirus pandemic grew to dominate public and congressional attention, the bill was put on hold.
Supporters in Congress, along with conservation groups and the outdoor industry, are now promoting the GAOA as an economic stimulus, arguing it will provide much-needed jobs in rural areas that have been especially hard hit by the pandemic-created recession. The bill is slated for a vote in the Senate next month.
Would passage of the bill provide a boost to rural economies, especially those economies struggling in the current recession? In this post, we offer some observations. We provide some statistics for a selected set of gateway communities—towns that lie just outside national parks and other visitor-oriented public lands—to show the extent to which they rely on tourism. Drawing from some of the economics literature on recovery from natural disasters, we then offer the view that the current bill may function as a jobs bill.
Gateway Communities and the “Services Recession”
The April jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) was grim, estimating that the United States lost 20.5 million jobs in just one month. Retail and various service sectors were hit particularly hard, prompting some observers to refer to the current economic contraction as the “services recession.”
According to the BLS, an estimated 7.7 million jobs were lost in “leisure and hospitality” industries, and these industries loom large in gateway communities. Indeed, several news stories have documented the economic blow these towns have suffered. In Moab, Utah—normally bustling in spring with mountain bikers, hikers, and other outdoors enthusiasts—the closure of Arches National Park led to business shutdowns and layoffs. The mayor of Springdale, Utah, a small town near Zion National Park, estimated that his town had less than one percent of its normal business during the month of April.
Using the National Establishment Time Series (NETS) database, we calculated the number of jobs in tourism-related industries for four gateway towns in the American West. The NETS database includes the universe of all business establishments in operation, with information on their precise location, employment, and a detailed industry code. (We used these data in our recent article in Science Advances on the economic impacts of national monuments.)
With the locational detail, we focus on gateway communities near some of the nation’s most popular national parks: West Yellowstone, Montana, outside the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park; Springdale, Utah, near Zion National Park; Estes Park, Colorado, near Rocky Mountain National Park; Moab, Utah, just outside Arches National Park; and Cortez, Colorado, close to Mesa Verde National Park. The tourism-related industries (consistent with US Census definitions) include hotels and lodging; gasoline stations; full-service (sit-down) and limited-service (fast-food) restaurants; amusement and recreation services; gift, novelty, and souvenir retail stores; and RV parks and campgrounds. We show the total number of these jobs as a share of all jobs in each town and for the eight-state Mountain West region as a whole. We rely on data from 2015.
The numbers confirm our assumptions about the intrinsic vulnerability of gateway communities to the current recession. All of the towns have a greater share of jobs in tourism than the region as a whole. The percent varies across the communities, however. The smaller towns—Springdale (the smallest) and West Yellowstone—are more dependent on tourism than the others. In West Yellowstone, 37 percent of all jobs are in tourism-related businesses. Cortez is the largest and most diversified of the five towns, though it still has roughly twice as many jobs in tourism-related industries (as a share of total jobs) than the Mountain West region as a whole.
Gateway communities’ reliance on tourism also makes them less in control of their own destinies in returning to normalcy as the pandemic (hopefully) eases. Their economies depend heavily on decisions made outside their borders—by the National Park Service, airlines, tour companies, and individuals and families living far away, including overseas. (International visitors accounted for over 13 million visits to national parks and monuments in 2015).
Can the Great American Outdoors Act Help?
Many national parks are reopening this Memorial Day weekend, albeit in a limited way. Like other parts of the country easing restrictions, it’s unclear what the reopenings will mean for public health, but they may throw a lifeline to local businesses in gateway communities. Nonetheless, many observers expect travel to national parks to be at historic lows this summer and communities near those parks to suffer as a result.
The GAOA has two parts: (1) guaranteed funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which Margaret has written about in a blog post published in March this year, and (2) a new dedicated fund—the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Fund—to address the deferred maintenance backlog in national parks and other public lands.
Of the two components of the GAOA, the funding for the deferred maintenance backlog may have the greatest potential to bolster gateway communities’ resilience to the recession, especially in the short run. Deferred maintenance is an estimate of the cost of repairs or maintenance on roads, buildings, utility systems, and other structures and facilities that have been postponed for more than a year due to budget constraints. The National Park Service backlog stood at $12 billion in September 2018, and backlogs at the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Forest Service totaled $7.5 billion. The GAOA would create a fund from oil and gas lease revenues up to $1.9 billion per year for four years. That money could jump-start investment in a variety of construction projects, including overhauls of aging water infrastructure, repairs to visitor centers and campgrounds, and maintenance of roads and bridges. This would generate labor demand and—contingent on prompt funding—may help gateway communities rebound from a shortfall in tourism.
Much depends on the ability to commence projects quickly, but lessons can be drawn from recovery after natural disasters. Post-disaster construction has been shown to serve a key role for communities hit hard by hurricanes, wildfires, and other disasters. The increase in labor demand boosts employment and earnings. One analysis found that the unemployment rate in Houston dropped from 5.1 percent when Hurricane Harvey hit in August 2017 to 4.5 percent just four months later. In fact, stories abound of labor shortages and wage hikes after hurricanes and wildfires—documented in Houston after Hurricane Harvey and in Santa Rosa, California, after the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Several peer-reviewed studies in the economics literature have confirmed these findings with careful statistical analyses. One study found that workers’ earnings in Florida counties hit by a hurricane went up by 4 percent after the hurricane because of rising labor demand. Another found positive long-run labor market effects from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which struck the Gulf Coast in 2005.
Insurance payouts and disaster aid are essential for powering the economic recovery from disasters and driving these increases in labor demand. In the same way, the Great American Outdoors Act could help communities recover from the economic fallout generated by the pandemic. To be clear, the main purpose of the bill is to provide much-needed financial support for our chronically underfunded parks and public lands. In our view, the bill stands on its merits for this alone. But at this time of great need, it might also provide an economic boost in the rural communities that need it most.