Economic value of state’s parks is more than $1 billion

A study on the economic impact of Connecticut’s state-run parks and forests is causing more than a few eyebrows to arch not to mention visions of some serious dollar signs. The total — an impressive $1.25 billion a year.

And that could be a very conservative number.

“I always want to be very careful to underestimate,” said Fred Carstensen, director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Economic Analysis. The center did the study at the behest of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection — when it was still just the DEP early this year at the start of the Malloy administration.

Carstensen crunched, parsed and otherwise calibrated the state’s own parks data to come up with that number, the calculation that the parks create nearly 9,000 jobs and the determination that in the end, the state’s 107 parks and 32 forests pay for themselves with $30 million to spare.

“It’s not a luxury; it’s not frill but really integral, not just to quality of life but integral to the health of the economy,” Carstensen said. “Maintaining the parks and having them available is important to the state, and it generates enough economic activity so that it really does cover the cost of maintaining them.”

But state data exist only for locations where officials can actually count noses — either through entrance fees or a little less precisely by staff who can roughly estimate attendance at free facilities. But many parks and forests have no staffs so how many people are going and what they’re doing is more art than science.

Even so, the study extrapolated the direct expenditures by visitors to forest and parks to be $544.3 million, about half the total economic value. A pleasant big bucks surprise to state officials, but not to Carstensen, who said after doing 150 analyses like this, he generally knows what to expect.

The study also crunched the state’s numbers for fees paid for things such as fishing and hunting licenses and permits, boating and boat launches, fish hatcheries, ski passes, facility rentals, camping and swimming use — anything that could be measured in dollars and cents. And for everything, it figured the related business impacts: purchase of gas, food or that little must-have tourist trinket.

It also looked at the effect of increased real estate values — about 12 percent — for homes that border parks and forests.

It did, however, miss a lot, such as free recreational activity such as hiking, biking, trail use and one of the biggest: bird and animal watching.

“One billion is a lot, but we feel it’s a real understatement of the value,” said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association.

He pointed to trail use and birdwatching in particular, citing the most recent survey by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2006) that showed in Connecticut 309,000 people engaged in fishing or hunting while 1.2 million did bird or wildlife watching. The expenditures for wildlife watching were estimated at $492 million compared with $198 million for fishing and $64 million for hunting.

“Because of things like hiking, biking and birdwatching,” he said, “We should consider investing a whole lot more in our parks and on the marketing side, staff side.”

The state has only 95 full-time employees, including administration and clerical staff, dedicated to parks. It hires about 550 seasonal workers each year.

The study also provided a dozen years of attendance data showing an up-and-down trend with a bit of a spike in recent years from out-of-state visitors. Total visitors for 2010 was just under 4.6 million, up from nearly 4.3 million in 2009, which was down slightly from the two previous years. 2010 had 8.5 million visitor days, more than half of which was at for-fee facilities.

Tom Tyler, director of state parks for DEEP, cautioned against reading too much into the numbers. “It is difficult or impossible to look at those trends year to year and glean much from them because the biggest driving factor of attendance is the weather,” he said. “We have not yet figured out a way to look at a constant for the weather.

“You can look at that report and see that 2010 was a beautiful summer and it was.”

Carstensen said he realizes that the study is limited, and aspects of park and forest usage were not included, which would likely push that $1.25 billion even higher. Even with those faults, he said: “This is the kind of analysis the state, in my view, ought to be doing much more comprehensively.”