Refuges Have Big Impacts on Local Economies, Even with Declining Budgets

Banking on Nature
Banking on Nature
Wildlife Management Institute
Wildlife Management Institute

Gardners, PA –-( On November 5 2013, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the release of a new report documenting the economic impacts of recreational visits to national wildlife refuges across the country.

The report, Banking on Nature, found that the 46.5 million visitors to refuges in 2011 generated $2.4 billion in sales in regional economies supporting more than 35,000 jobs, according to the Wildlife Management Institute.

Refuges returned $4.87 in total economic output for every $1 that was appropriated in the 2011 fiscal year. These findings are particularly relevant given the outcry of recreationists during the recent government shutdown that saw all refuges shuttered for over two weeks as well as the continued budget challenges faced by the National Wildlife Refuge System.

“Our National Wildlife Refuge System is the world’s greatest network of lands dedicated to wildlife conservation, but it is also a powerful economic engine for local communities across the country, attracting more than 46 million visitors from around the world who support local restaurants, hotels, and other businesses,” said Jewell. “In addition to conserving and protecting public lands for future generations, the report shows that every dollar we invest in our Refuge System generates huge economic dividends for our country.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) economists used data collected during the 2011 National Survey of Fishing Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation and from the Refuge Annual Performance Plan (RAPP) for the same year to develop the new report. The authors included spending on food, lodging, transportation and other expenses (such as guide fees, land-use fees and equipment rental). Spending by the refuges themselves, payments in lieu of taxes, commercial activities on refuges, and many other economic effects of refuges were not considered in the report.

The findings show that, although visitation on refuges is less than on other federal lands, they still have a big impact on the communities around them. Refuge recreational spending generated about $342.9 million in tax revenue at the local, county, state and Federal level and generated $792.7 million in employment income. Of the $2.4 billion in expenditures within the regional economies, about 72 percent of the spending came from non-consumptive users showing the importance of birders, photographers and other recreationists in using public lands. Fishing contributed about 21 percent of the expenditures and hunting about 7 percent. Particularly important to these communities, 77 percent of the expenditures were by visitors from outside the local area who traveled there to enjoy what the refuge had to offer. This shows that refuges contribute to attracting tourists to an area.

The report also includes detailed information about 92 sample refuges to more fully understand visitation and to apply the results across the eight FWS geographic regions. For example, recreational visitors to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas created nearly $30 million in economic effects but the refuge has a budget of only $801,000 – roughly $37 for every $1 in budget expenditure. Refuges in the Southeastern region had the most visitors of any region at 12.4 million and generated the most combined jobs of any region at 9,455.

“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 FWS Director Dan Ashe. “That’s inspiring and important news, especially as our economy continues to gain strength.”

In spite of the tremendous return on investment, Congress has reduced appropriations for refuge operations and maintenance and budget sequestration has also taken away critical funding. A late September memo from National Wildlife Refuge System Chief Jim Kurth to Ashe outlined the information collected in the Refuge Annual Performance Plan (RAPP) that shows just how much of an impact these cuts are having. Since 2010, funding for refuges has dropped by almost $50 million to $454 million, $33 million of which was cut in 2013 alone due to sequestration. As a result, the agency has treated 37 percent fewer acres for invasive species, conducted more than 15 percent less research, and restored 77 percent less acres of wetlands. In addition, to meet budget planning targets for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, managers estimate they will have to eliminate 455 positions from 2012 levels.

“If we continue to see the sequester remain in place and are forced to absorb further reductions, we are prepared to make the difficult decisions required to implement them,” Kurth wrote. “We must also be prepared to see our performance data show a continued significant decline in our conservation work and visitor services. The results for our national wildlife refuges, the communities that benefit economically from them, and the citizens that enjoy them will be consequential. We will not be able to maintain the level of stewardship people expect of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

The Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE), a coalition of more than 20 organizations ranging from the National Rifle Association to Defenders of Wildlife, have been working for many years to encourage Congress to provide necessary operations and maintenance funding for refuges. They have advocated for at least $499 million in funding in fiscal year 2014 for these needs. A report the coalition released this past summer documents the many things that refuges do for communities on top of the economic benefits and also outlines the need for increased operations funding.

“The National Wildlife Refuge System continues to remind us that conserving nature is essential to our own well-being,” said David Houghton, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association and chair of the CARE coalition. “If we ignore those reminders and fail to invest in our national wildlife refuges, everyone loses.” (jas)


Wildlife Management Institute: Founded in 1911, WMI is a private, nonprofit, scientific and educational organization, dedicated to the conservation, enhancement and professional management of North America’s wildlife and other natural resources. Visit: