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A Finger on the Pulse of U.S. State Parks

Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018

man an woman next to tent in the wilderness

Researchers have been able to characterize the operation of the nation's state parks. They identified interesting trends related to attendance, managers’ expenses, revenue, acres managed, and the amount of labor it takes to keep these parks running. Photo courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tourism.

Roaming with bison in Custer, South Dakota or gawking at drop-dead vistas from Dead Horse Point, Utah … state parks in the United States offer spectacular scenery and seemingly endless acres of recreation opportunities. Although each state park system is independently managed, it is still possible to get a finger on the pulse of these vibrant and diverse destinations. 

Using the Annual Information Exchange Archive, a database used by state park system operators and staff, researchers at Utah State University’s Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism have been able to characterize the operation of the nation’s 50 state park systems between 1984 and 2017. They analyzed trends in attendance, expenditure, revenue, labor and acreage, noting historical patterns and projecting future trajectories.

Here’s what they found, in part:

  • Visits to the state park systems have risen steadily since 1984. Attendance reached an all time high in 2017 with 807.3 million visits. 
  • Operating expenditures rose steadily until 2007, when they began to decline. Recent trends suggest expenditures for the goods and services required to manage the state park systems will continue to decline over coming years. 
  • Revenue data for state parks show steady increases until 2017, when total revenues dropped to $1.35 billion – a 2.78% decrease from 2016. 
  • The total area managed within state park systems has increased steadily since 1984, with notable expansions in recent years. Specifically, 2014 saw a 17.7% increase in acreage over 2013, growing from 15.25 million acres to 18.20 million acres. 
  • The labor required to maintain the state park systems saw increases from 1984 to the early 2000s – but since 2002, total employment has declined – a notable trend given increases in both attendance and acreage over the same time period.
  • On average, it costs about $25 for a manager to produce an additional 3.59 hours of outdoor recreation within a state park system. 

As state park managers work to manage more visitors on more acres with less revenue and fewer employees, these trends will become important to follow. 

Read more about trends, projections, and efficiency rankings for state park systems in the Institute’s entire report, available at the link below here:

Jordan W. Smith is the Director of the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environment and Society. His research examines how humans make behavioral and planning adaptations in response to rapidly changing environmental conditions.


  • - Jordan Smith, Director, Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, 435-797-9174

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