15 States Spending the Most on Parks and Recreation

Yellowstone National Park
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Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on CLIQ.

While the travel and tourism industry took a major hit during the COVID-19 pandemic as more people elected to stay home and avoid travel, outdoor recreation has remained a bright spot.

Recent data from the Outdoor Industry Association showed a 2.4 percentage point jump in total outdoor participation among Americans from 2019 to 2020. Outdoor activities of all types became an enticing alternative for people looking to get away from home while keeping their risk of spreading or contracting the coronavirus relatively low. The OIA data specifically estimated that 2020 saw 8.1 million more hikers, 7.9 million new campers, and 3.4 million additional freshwater fishers taking advantage of the great outdoors during COVID-19. This trend may also reflect larger shifts in people’s lifestyle preferences, as COVID-19 has inspired many workers to leave dense urban areas for locations where outdoor space is more plentiful.

Interest in the outdoors is good news for state and local governments that fund parks and recreation. These governments invest in recreational sites not only for the health and leisure of their residents but also as an economic development tool. Studies have estimated that the outdoor recreation economy is responsible for more than 7 million U.S. jobs and close to $900 billion of consumer spending annually — generating roughly $60 billion in tax revenue for state and local governments.

Funding for Parks Has Grown Significantly

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These factors may help parks fare better when it comes to government funding than they did after the Great Recession. Following the last recession, state and local revenues were decimated nationwide, and parks and recreation became a target for budgetary cutbacks in many jurisdictions. During this time, total state and local spending on parks fell from an all-time peak of $48.5 billion in 2009 to $39.9 billion in 2013 (in inflation-adjusted 2018 dollars). Spending has resumed an upward trajectory since — but still has not returned to pre-recession heights, after adjusting for inflation.

Currently, overall spending on parks and recreation is led by states with larger populations and greater economic activity. California, Florida, New York, Illinois, and Texas are the biggest spenders, and they also represent the five largest economies and five of the top six largest populations. Per capita spending paints a different picture, as several states in the Midwest — including Illinois, North Dakota, and Minnesota — all rank among the top five in the country. Mountain states like Colorado, Nevada, and Wyoming also spend among the most per capita. For many of these leading states, investments in parks and recreation are an important tool for generating economic activity. Developing parks and recreational sites around the state’s natural scenery helps bring in visitors — and dollars — to these states.

To find these locations, researchers at CLIQ analyzed data on state and local government finances from the U.S. Census Bureau and data on the outdoor recreation economy from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The researchers divided total parks and recreation spending in each state by the state’s population to rank the states with the highest spending per capita. The research team also gathered data on outdoor recreation’s economic effects, including the share of state GDP and the share of total state employment.

Keep reading to see which states spend the most on parks and recreation.

15. Florida

Brooksville, Florida
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  • Annual parks & recreation government spending per capita: $164
  • Total annual parks & recreation government spending: $3,516,038,000
  • Outdoor recreation share of state GDP: 4.4%
  • Outdoor recreation share of total employment: 4.0%
  • Population: 21,477,737

14. New Mexico

nature
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  • Annual parks & recreation government spending per capita: $164
  • Total annual parks & recreation government spending: $344,116,000
  • Outdoor recreation share of state GDP: 2.2%
  • Outdoor recreation share of total employment: 3.1%
  • Population: 2,096,829

13. California

Moonstone Beach in California
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  • Annual parks & recreation government spending per capita: $173
  • Total annual parks & recreation government spending: $6,829,549,000
  • Outdoor recreation share of state GDP: 1.8%
  • Outdoor recreation share of total employment: 2.4%
  • Population: 39,512,223

12. Oregon

Cannon Beach in Oregon
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  • Annual parks & recreation government spending per capita: $176
  • Total annual parks & recreation government spending: $741,936,000
  • Outdoor recreation share of state GDP: 2.9%
  • Outdoor recreation share of total employment: 3.4%
  • Population: 4,217,737

11. Alaska

Alaska's Denali National Park
Martina Birnbaum / Shutterstock.com
  • Annual parks & recreation government spending per capita: $177
  • Total annual parks & recreation government spending: $129,214,000
  • Outdoor recreation share of state GDP: 3.9%
  • Outdoor recreation share of total employment: 4.5%
  • Population: 731,545

10. Washington

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  • Annual parks & recreation government spending per capita: $177
  • Total annual parks & recreation government spending: $1,346,121,000
  • Outdoor recreation share of state GDP: 2.0%
  • Outdoor recreation share of total employment: 2.8%
  • Population: 7,614,893

9. South Dakota

South Dakota
By Jess Kraft / Shutterstock.com
  • Annual parks & recreation government spending per capita: $182
  • Total annual parks & recreation government spending: $161,193,000
  • Outdoor recreation share of state GDP: 2.5%
  • Outdoor recreation share of total employment: 3.3%
  • Population: 884,659

8. Maryland

nature outdoors
KhanIM / Shutterstock.com
  • Annual parks & recreation government spending per capita: $189
  • Total annual parks & recreation government spending: $1,142,153,000
  • Outdoor recreation share of state GDP: 1.7%
  • Outdoor recreation share of total employment: 2.3%
  • Population: 6,045,680

7. Hawaii

Wai'anapanapa State Park in Maui, Hawaii
Shane Myers Photography / Shutterstock.com
  • Annual parks & recreation government spending per capita: $221
  • Total annual parks & recreation government spending: $312,473,000
  • Outdoor recreation share of state GDP: 5.8%
  • Outdoor recreation share of total employment: 5.9%
  • Population: 1,415,872

6. Wyoming

Grand Teton National Park
Kris Wiktor / Shutterstock.com
  • Annual parks & recreation government spending per capita: $229
  • Total annual parks & recreation government spending: $132,673,000
  • Outdoor recreation share of state GDP: 4.2%
  • Outdoor recreation share of total employment: 5.2%
  • Population: 578,759

5. Nevada

Nevada's Valley of Fire State Park
Galyna Andrushko / Shutterstock.com
  • Annual parks & recreation government spending per capita: $233
  • Total annual parks & recreation government spending: $717,944,000
  • Outdoor recreation share of state GDP: 3.1%
  • Outdoor recreation share of total employment: 3.1%
  • Population: 3,080,156

4. Illinois

anthony heflin / Shutterstock.com
  • Annual parks & recreation government spending per capita: $240
  • Total annual parks & recreation government spending: $3,045,451,000
  • Outdoor recreation share of state GDP: 1.8%
  • Outdoor recreation share of total employment: 2.1%
  • Population: 12,671,821

3. Minnesota

Minnesota water
Dan Thornberg / Shutterstock.com
  • Annual parks & recreation government spending per capita: $248
  • Total annual parks & recreation government spending: $1,401,314,000
  • Outdoor recreation share of state GDP: 2.4%
  • Outdoor recreation share of total employment: 2.6%
  • Population: 5,639,632

2. Colorado

Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado
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  • Annual parks & recreation government spending per capita: $270
  • Total annual parks & recreation government spending: $1,553,503,000
  • Outdoor recreation share of state GDP: 3.1%
  • Outdoor recreation share of total employment: 3.8%
  • Population: 5,758,736

1. North Dakota

A hiker in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota
ZakZeinert / Shutterstock.com
  • Annual parks & recreation government spending per capita: $425
  • Total annual parks & recreation government spending: $324,086,000
  • Outdoor recreation share of state GDP: 2.2%
  • Outdoor recreation share of total employment: 2.9%
  • Population: 762,062

Detailed Findings & Methodology

Woman hiking in Zion National Park
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The data used in this analysis is from the U.S. Census Bureau’s State and Local Government Finance Datasets and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’s Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account. To determine the states with the most parks and recreation spending per capita, researchers divided the total annual parks and recreation state and local government spending by the state population. In the event of a tie, the state with the greater total annual parks and recreation spending was ranked higher.

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