So far, the Ferguson Fire has burned 96,810 acres in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains since it ignited 35 days ago. It’s cost two lives and injured 19 people. The actual price of fighting it will be measured in the tens of millions of dollars. All that doesn’t even put it on the top 10 list of the most destructive fires in California's history, but it is still going to be a fire that people talk about for years. Why? It closed most of Yosemite National Park for three weeks.
Yosemite is the fifth most-visited national park and, as such, it's a major economic engine in the region. July and August are the park’s most popular months: last year, they accounted for 32 percent of the park's annual visitation—1,193,339 people. The park itself is massively backlogged with deferred maintenance costs and relies on entry fees to help fund critical projects. Currently, Yosemite has a $582,670,827 backlog of deferred maintenance. Even though it didn’t burn much of the park, the Ferguson fire will add millions to that backlog by reducing revenue this year. On top of all that, many local businesses depend on the income park visitors generate during the summer to keep lights on the rest of the year.
I called Lynne Koontz, who works as an economist for the National Park Service and is the co-author of a report that assessed the total economic impact of parks on their surrounding communities. She explained that calculating the financial and economic impact of the Ferguson Fire is going to be difficult, and that the Park Service doesn't yet have data on how many visitors it lost during the closure. While the Yosemite Valley itself—by far the park's biggest draw—was closed, some visitors were able to reach the park's more remote areas in other ways, further complicating the data. "But you can look at visitation data, and extrapolate some broad strokes," she explained. So I did just that.
Last year, 4,336,890 people visited Yosemite, bringing a total of $589 million to the local economy, according to Park Service estimates. This year, most of the park was closed for 20 days, reopening Tuesday. If we remove 20 of July and August’s 62 days, we can assume the park lost 384,948 visitors—or nearly nine percent of its annual total. The actual impact on visitation numbers will likely be greater, as the length of closure was announced as “indefinite,” likely causing tourists traveling from far away to cancel future trips. Plus, smoke from the fire choked park visitors for days before the park closed, which also likely impacted visitation. "I would think visitation number would be down for a good period before and after the closure," Koontz told me.
The latest data on total entry fee revenue available comes from 2014, when Yosemite made $18,790,000 from its visitors. Eighty percent of entry fee revenue remains in Yosemite and pays for maintenance to roads, campgrounds, trails, and other infrastructure. If we continue with the estimate of a nine percent decrease in visitors, we can assume the park lost at least $1,691,100 in entry fees alone.
In 2014, the Park Service made $10,974,000 from franchise fees paid by concessions operators in Yosemite. We can also assume the Ferguson Fire will knock at least nine percent off of 2018’s total—$987,660—which will impact the budget of the entire Park Service. That includes its ability to address its $11.9-billion maintenance backlog. If you’re driving through Smokey Mountain National Park next year, and get a flat tire after hitting a pothole, you might consider blaming the far away Ferguson Fire for that.
But Yosemite and the Park Service will carry on. We may not be able to say the same about local businesses that depend on park-driven tourism to survive.
In 2017, the Park Service calculated that visitors to Yosemite spent $452 million in the communities that surround the park. That supported 6,670 jobs, creating $205 million in labor income. Knocking nine percent or more off any of those numbers is going to hurt—by at least $40,680,000. Labor income in local communities could drop by $18,450,000.
Already, stories of hardship are filling media outlets nationwide. “If I hadn't had savings, which is depleted, I'd be scrambling for money or I wouldn't have a business,” local hotel owner George Shaw told Business Insider. He says the park closure cost him $200,000 in lost revenue, forcing him to fire eight of his 43 employees.
"Money that was in our bank we now have to turn around and refund people on an experience we were not able to offer,” Scott Gehrman, who runs a local tour company, told Time. The closures came during his company’s busiest time of the year. The magazine estimates that local businesses could suffer a far greater impact than just the number of visitors lost to the three week closure. Because more visitors come to the park from far away during the summer, they fill hotels outside the park disproportionately during that season. Lost revenue estimates for that industry may be as much as 20 percent of their annual total.
Add all those numbers up, and the financial impact is simply massive. The park itself will lose at least $2,678,760, while the local community will lose businesses and jobs. The AP reports that the total economic impact on local businesses could be $50 million. And that's before we event talk about the cost of fighting the fire itself.
With this week's re-opening of the park, local businesses have launched a social media campaign designed to inform potential visitors that the park is good to go. #YosemiteNow is full of photos of smoke-free skies, and the park’s epic vistas. “Thank you to all the men and women that helped protect our piece of heaven in the Sierras,” reads one post.