Investment in national parks pays rich return for Alaska

New Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's recent visit to Alaska made him one of what is likely to be a record number of visitors to Alaska's public lands this year.

Public lands, including national parks and forest lands in Alaska, are a crucial part of our state's thriving tourism industry. Alaska has 15 national parklands comprising 60 percent of the entire national park system. People made more than 2.7 million visits to national parks in Alaska in 2016, infusing our economy with nearly $1.3 billion in visitor spending and supporting over 18,000 jobs.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association, the leading statewide trade association for Alaska's tourism industry, has consistently supported investments in our national parks and forests to ensure they can offer an experience that benefits Alaskans and keeps visitors coming back to Alaska. Investments in funding our public lands include quality education programs and maintenance of infrastructure such as roads, trails, plumbing and roofs. On behalf of our members from around the state, the association thanks Sen. Lisa Murkowski for listening and being a champion for our state's tourism industry.

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Over the last decade, funding for maintenance projects in the national parks has declined by nearly half, in today's dollars. Last year, Congress decreased the budget for Park Service staff by more than 10 percent from 2010. This decline led to fewer rangers and staff to guide visitors, as well as fewer staff resources to keep up with maintenance and repairs. The president's recently released budget suggests cutting another 13 percent from the Park Service budget, the largest cut since World War II.

It is essential that national parks have the staff and funding to maintain and improve visitor experiences and facilities to ensure that Alaska national parks remain a driver of visitor industry growth.

Through Murkowski's leadership, the Senate has made efforts to address Park Service funding issues. For example, last year she was a champion for the passage of the National Park Service Centennial Act, which supports public-private funding partnerships as well as fostering volunteer opportunities for young people.


[A life entwined with Alaska's national parks]

These actions by Murkowski translate to economic activity and support for tourism businesses, from local lodge and restaurant owners to guides and retailers, that connect visitors and Alaskans alike to our public lands. Denali's more than 580,000 visitors spent over $600 million in local gateway economies and supported upwards of 7,700 jobs in 2016; Glacier Bay visitors spent $112 million and supported over 2,000 jobs.

Zinke has said that two of his top priorities are repairing national parks' infrastructure and providing resources to the rangers and front line employees in our national parks and other public lands.

The travel industry association appreciates Murkowski's commitment to invest in the national parks, which support tourism jobs and economic benefits for Alaskans, and hope she will support legislation that will further Zinke's goal of ensuring our national parks have the funding they need as they enter their second century.

Sarah Leonard is president and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

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