Letters from the West

Rocky Barker: National Park Service under-reports Yellowstone, Teton benefits to Idaho

It comes as no surprise that Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, two of the jewels in the nation’s crown, bring huge dollars to the surrounding area.

The 3.5 million visitors to Yellowstone National Park in 2014 spent $421 million in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. A study conducted by U.S. Geological Survey economists Catherine Cullinane Thomas and Christopher Huber and National Park Service economist Lynne Koontz found that Yellowstone supported 6,662 jobs and had a cumulative benefit to the local economy of $544 million.

Grand Teton did even better. Its 2.8 million park visitors spent an estimated $490 million and supported 7,800 jobs for a total of $637 million in economic output.

What was Idaho’s share of this tourism largesse?

Nothing. At least that’s what the study suggests.

While the study did measure all the economic income from 60 miles around the two parks, all that economic impact was attributed to Montana and Wyoming. Even though Yellowstone includes a strip of land in Idaho, the new study divvied out the benefits based on attendance.

The tens of thousands of national park visitors who fly annually into Idaho Falls to visit Yellowstone. The millions of people who come across Idaho from Utah or from the West Coast to visit the two parks are counted as benefits to Montana and Wyoming, even though the most common route to the West Yellowstone gateway is through Idaho.

The hardy souls who actually venture into Idaho’s sliver of Yellowstone have to go through the Bechler Ranger Station in Wyoming east of Ashton, and no one really counts them. Grand Teton lies completely in Wyoming, but many visitors come from Idaho into the wild west side of the park via Driggs, Victor and Tetonia. They don’t count either.

So it’s not surprising that Idaho leaders largely dismiss the potential of tourism to help lift up rural Idaho. Ann Anthony, editor and publisher of the Island Park News, thinks the powers that be in Idaho’s Capitol ignore the potential. Get more of these people to stop for even a day in Idaho and we all benefit.

“I don’t think the Boise area promotes us enough,” Anthony said.

The Park Service didn’t totally ignore Idaho. It said its four non-park units – Craters of the Moon, Hagerman Fossil Beds, City of Rocks and Nez Perce Trail – account for $26 million in economic activity for the local areas. That generates 453 jobs for a total of $34 million in economic output in the Idaho economy.

Idaho’s tourism experts know what a difference it can make. Blaine County, which has Sun Valley, serves as the gateway to The Sawtooth National Recreation Area and includes part of the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, has an estimated $1.8 billion economic engine with roughly two-thirds tied to tourism, said Harry Griffith, executive director of Sun Valley Economic Development.

It outpaces Jackson Hole, even though Sun Valley gets just 1.2 million visitors a year, half what the gateway to Yellowstone and Teton get. That’s because Sun Valley visitors have more disposable income per capita.

If Idaho is going to tap into more of this bonanza for rural development, the state is going to have to make tourism a bigger deal – just like Montana, Wyoming and Utah do. If we want to try to keep our favorite areas all to ourselves, there is a cost. Anthony sees it every day – the line of cars driving through Island Park without stopping.

But the National Park Service needs to care more about Idaho, too. Butte County residents are trying to get Craters of the Moon upgraded from monument to a national park status, a higher profile that could attract new investment and 28 percent more visitors.

It’s time, on the verge of the 100th anniversary year for the National Park Service, for Director Jonathan Jarvis, a former Craters of the Moon superintendent, to join the locals and recommend finishing the job and making Craters of the Moon a national park. And next year’s economic study should acknowledge the benefits that Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks bring to Idaho.