Some 5 million visitors to Yosemite National Park in 2016 spent about $520 million in surrounding communities, according to a new report released Thursday by the National Park Service.
The report doesn’t offer much insight into what Tuolumne County specifically could stand to lose from an indefinite closure of the only road into Yosemite Valley via Highway 120 because “surrounding communities” are considered all of those within a 60-mile radius.
“The 60-mile radius method results in some relatively large local gateway regions, especially in some western states where counties are large,” the report stated. “Because of this, there is the potential for including some areas that are not intrinsically linked to the local economies surrounding each park.”
The report continues, “Efforts are underway to improve local gateway region definitions.”
According to NPS traffic counts, the number of vehicles entering the park from the Big Oak Flat entrance via Highway 120 plummeted by nearly 50 percent in the month of February from 16,737 in 2016 to 8,383 this year.
Nevertheless, visitor spending at Yosemite National Park last year reportedly supported 7,883 jobs within a 60-mile radius. That resulted in a cumulative benefit of $686 million to the local economies within the region.
Most of the visitor spending, about $201 million, was for lodging at hotels.
Restaurants accounted for the second largest share at $87 million, followed by recreation industries at $60 million, gas stations at $45 million, retail stores at $39 million, grocery stores at $36 million, transportation at $34 million and camping at $18 million.
The report stated visitor spending in communities within 60 miles of the park has increased about 37 percent since 2012, when the total was $379 million.
“We are a proud partner of the Yosemite Gateway communities and many small businesses that provide services to visitors traveling to Yosemite National Park throughout the year,” said Acting Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins.
There were a total of about 42 million visits to national parks in California last year, generating a total of $2 billion in visitor spending.
Nationally, the report showed $18.4 billion of spending in communities within 60 miles of a national park from 331 million park visitors in 2016. That spending supported 271,544 jobs in those communities, according to the report.
Economists Catherine Cullinane Thomas, of the U.S. Geological Survey, and Lynne Koontz, of the National Park Service, conducted the peer-reviewed analysis on visitor spending. The analysis is derived from survey data collected through the Visitor Services Project.
Despite the rosy outlook of increased visitor spending, the economic impacts of a months-long closure of the only route leading to Yosemite Valley from Highway 120 have yet to be tallied.
Businesses near the town of Groveland have reported a slowdown in activity due to the closure, while Tuolumne County and City of Sonora officials have expressed concern about the impacts on sales and hotel tax revenues come the end of the budget year on June 30.
The valley has been inaccessible via Big Oak Flat Road since late February due to storms that severely damaged a roughly 200-foot stretch.
Crews are working to repair the road, but the park service has yet to announced a date for reopening.
The number of vehicles that entered the park from the entrance in April 2016 was 33,858.
Other parts of the park remain accessible via the Big Oak Flat entrance, including Crane Flat, Hodgdon Meadow Campground, the Merced and Tuolumne groves of giant sequoias, and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir (accessible via Evergreen Road less than a mile west of the main entrance).
The Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau has launched a campaign intended to raise awareness about other recreational opportunities available elsewhere in the park or in the surrounding area. They say nearly all of the visitors to the park each year only see roughly 5 percent of the park, mostly concentrated in the popular valley.