Black CAnyon

Auzie Blevins gazes southward while standing on the wall in the picnic area at Sunset Point at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in 2016. He was visiting from Billings, Montana. (Montrose Daily Press file photo)

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park boasts vistas and outdoor recreation galore — but it’s also a pretty healthy cash cow, fueling local jobs and broader spending in the regional economy.

The outdoor jewel last year brought more than $19 million in visitor spending into the area and supported 241 jobs. Although visitor spending dropped a bit at nearby Curecanti National Recreation Area from what was seen in 2017, last year, visitors still spent a hefty $41 million.

“The numbers show pretty much what we would expect; that we have healthy visitation numbers and those visitation numbers are translating into support for the local economy,” Black Canyon and Curecanti Superintendent Bruce Noble said.

At Black Canyon, visitor spending rose from $18.7 million in 2017 to about $19.3 million last year. The spending drove $8.2 million in labor income; $14.2 million in value-added spending/benefit and $23.7 million in economic output (cumulative benefit), according to the peer-reviewed 2018 National Park Service Visitor Spending Effects Report.

U.S. Geological Survey economists Catherine Cullinane Thomas and Egan Cornachione, with Lynne Koontz of the National Park Service, conducted and prepared this analysis.

The money visitors spent at Curecanti supported 501 jobs and $16.1 million in labor income, plus $46.3 million in economic output, according to the same report.

2018 visitor spending at the national recreation area dropped by about $3 million over the year prior, but Noble said such variations are normal.

“The visitation at Curecanti fluctuates. What maybe surprised me a little more is our total visitor numbers in 2018 at Black Canyon were just up a little bit. I would have expected them to be up more,” he said.

According to a separate report released in March, park visits edged up to nearly 309,000 in 2018, an increase hovering around 1 percent from 2017. (Curecanti logged 931,000 visitors in 2018.)

Although Noble had expected more of an increase in Black Canyon visitations, he said things are looking up this year.

“I think what we’re seeing so far in 2019 is some pretty significant increases. We don’t necessarily want dramatic increases every year, because we don’t want crowding to get to the point where it’s interfering with the visitor experience,” he said.

The bulk of spending associated with the Black Canyon was in lodging and restaurant sectors, followed by fuel sales. In terms of amount spent, retail spending was next, then recreation industries, groceries, transportation and camping.

Lodging and food also led visitor spending types for Curecanti. There, spending on groceries and gas was about the same, and followed by spending in retail, recreation industries, camping and transportation.

Both NPS-managed lands have programs, scenery and recreation opportunities that keep tourists and locals coming year after year, Noble said.

“I think the recreational assets of Black Canyon, (including) hiking the routes down to the river, are becoming a bigger and bigger attraction, thanks to social media. All those things together are part of what makes Black Canyon a really popular place with the public,” he said.

Curecanti’s big draw is water-based recreation centered on reservoirs and the Gunnison River.

“Those things continue to be a big draw and bring a lot of people to the area, but we’ve got camping and sailing, even some amount of hiking at Curecanti, that attracts the public. I think we’re pretty lucky to have both of these areas right here in our neck of the woods,” Noble added.

For now, some trails may be closed because of high water. The Pine Creek Trail down to Morrow Point Reservoir is closed, likely for the next few weeks, because of fluctuating water levels that preclude it being open for recreation.

Black Canyon and Curecanti were players in the overall economic contributions national parks, recreation areas and monuments made to Colorado overall.

Statewide, visitors spent $497 million, supporting 7,100 jobs; $258 million in labor income; $446 million value-added and $743 million-worth of economic output.

Nationwide, 318 million visitors to national parks and other NPS-administered public properties spent $20.2 billion, supporting 329,000 jobs, of which the bulk — 268,000 — were in gateway communities like Montrose and Gunnison.

Noble said he believes the tourist-based businesses appreciate what public lands like the park and the recreation area contribute to the economy.

“The main reason local residents appreciate the park is it’s a spectacular piece of scenery right in their backyards,” he said.

“But recognizing there’s also an economic benefit to having a park in you neighborhood, well, that’s good, too.”

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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