Economic growth would continue with traffic plan

This graph shows how visits to Arches could change under NPS’ proposed traffic management plan at Arches. The two lower dotted lines represent projections for visitation rates under the traffic the plan, and the upper dotted line represents the “business as usual” scenario, where the plan is not implemented.
Graphic courtesy of Robert Paterson via NPS

Following the release of a study on the potential economic impact of a reservation plan for Arches National Park, the National Park Service is taking a step back and looking to clarify some of the key findings from the study, particularly with regard to the economic impact the plan would have on Moab, Grand County and San Juan County.

Among the top-line items, NPS said that the author of the study, Robert Paterson, an economist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “expects that the park’s contributions to the economy would continue to grow, albeit at a rate slower than it would otherwise grow if the park took no action to address congestion issues.”

NPS provided the statement to The Times-Independent in a “Frequently Asked Questions” document on Tuesday that discussed some of the major points of the study. The document is available in full as a download below.

Skeptics of the traffic management plan, chief among them local businessman Michael Liss, have been critical of Paterson’s study. Liss said that it does not account for certain effects that he believes would greatly influence the health of Moab’s economy.

For example, Liss said that the study does not sufficiently account for economic “multiplier effects,” which refers to changes in total economic activity when external inputs change. He is also skeptical that visitation to Arches would grow during the winter “shoulder season” as much as Paterson’s study estimates.

Due to pushback to the plan, NPS is pausing to get more data and information that will inform a decision about how to address traffic congestion in Arches, but the plan is “certainly not dead,” according to Marco De Leon, the chief of public affairs for NPS’ Intermountain Region, which includes Utah.

De Leon said NPS will be looking at “all options on the table,” on how to address traffic congestion in Arches and is open to ideas from the public.

“The National Park Service takes public comments seriously and continues to evaluate that feedback carefully,” De Leon said in a statement. “Given that feedback, we are taking a healthy step back to consider all of our options to mitigate traffic congestion at Arches National Park.”

No projection is perfect

Paterson in his study and NPS in its statement both said that the economic report was based on “limited and imperfect information” and that the reliability of conclusions presented in the study were “contingent upon the integrity of the underlying data sources.”

Paterson’s study also indicated that, while visitation to Arches would likely fall in the first year after its plan’s implementation, that if the plan had been implemented for the current season, visitation totals in 2019 would have fallen between the totals for 2017 and 2018. In other words, the plan could set back visitation rates at Arches from one to two years.

Study suggests limited economic impacts

Paterson said in his study that, if NPS’ traffic management plan were implemented, he expected that after the initial drop in visitation, the number of people entering the park would “revert to what it would otherwise be under the system by year three.”

In its statement, NPS also emphasized that the economic impacts projected by Paterson were not limited to Moab.

“The economic region the author references in his study is the 13-county, 60-mile radius surrounding Arches NP,” NPS said in its statement. “For proper context, the aggregate size of this regional economy is around $15.1 billion.”

Paterson’s study estimates $11 to $22 million dollars in expected loss of growth if the plan were implemented, which is less than 1 percent of the aggregate size of the regional economy within the aforementioned 60-mile radius.

Based on quarterly reports published by Grand County’s Department of Community and Economic Development and annual tax income collected by the city and county, total tourism-related spending in Grand County in 2018 was roughly $425 million.

Additionally, De Leon said that the loss in growth of tourism-related revenue would likely be distributed beyond Moab and Grand County, and that this was part of the reason the study focused on a larger region. Another reason was the lack of data that was usable for the study.

“Estimates of the economic importance of Arches visitation are not available at the individual county level or for the Moab area,” NPS said in its statement.

De Leon emphasized this point in a phone interview with The Times-Independent.

“We can’t narrow this down to Grand County,” he said.

Visits to Arches have declined before

The projected decline in visitation to Arches in the first year is not without precedent. In 2017, total visitation to the park dropped from the previous year by approximately 46,690 visits, based on NPS data.

NPS said in its statement that the reduction was a result of Arches being closed during nighttime hours from March to November for road repairs. Liss contests that the actual reason for the decline was the ceasing of the Mighty Five ad campaign, a statewide campaign to market its national parks, including Arches.

Tourism-related spending in Moab between 2016 and 2017 does not appear to have slowed, based on various trends including local wage and job growth and tax income for Grand County and Moab from the Transient Room Tax, which is a tax levied on hotels and other overnight accommodations for short-term stays.

The original version of this story has been edited to include downloads for the various reports mentioned.