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The Waterway at New River State Park: An Assessment of User Demographics, Preferences, and Economics

Download the complete study (pdf 421 kb)
Also see studies of the Washington & Old Dominion and Virginia Creeper trails

This report focuses on a 39-mile segment of the New River Trail between Pulaski and Galax, Virginia.

Prepared for the Virginia Department of Conservation (December 9, 2004)

Map of Virginia

Summary and Conclusions

This primary intent of this report has been to assess the economic impacts and economic benefits of water-based recreation at the New River State Park (NRSP). Additional and related objectives included estimating annual visitation by local and nonlocal users, describing visitors and visitor behavior, and examining visitor attitudes and preferences associated with water trail related issues and local amenities.

photo: A former railroad bridge on the New River Trail
A former railroad bridge on the New River Trail

A convenience sampling procedure was used to obtain counts of visits and to survey users about their demographics, behavior, attitudes, and preferences. On-site sampling took place from July to September 2003. Recreation visits to the water venue at NRSP were estimated at approximately 155,331 for 2003. Nonlocals accounted for 43 percent of use or about 66,331 visits, while locals accounted for the remaining 57 percent of use or about 89,000 visits.

The average age of survey respondents was 41 years and approximately 60 percent of adult users were between the ages of 36 and 55. People over 65 accounted for only about 4 percent of those surveyed. Fifty-nine percent of respondents reported having at least one person with a college degree in their household. The average household income for the entire sample was $53,000. For locals the average household income was$43,100 while for nonlocals average household income was $67,000.

For locals, the average travel distance to the NRSP was about 40 miles, while nonlocals averaged traveling 217 miles and about 3.5 hours to reach the park. The average number of annual visits by locals was about 25, while nonlocals averaged just over 3 trips to the park each year. However, 18 percent of nonlocals took between 5 and 30 trips to the park each year.

"The New River State Park clearly contributes to the economic activity in the region and to the economic welfare of park users."

During each visit, locals averaged about 4 hours on the New River indicating primarily day use. Nonlocals, on the other hand, averaged close to 14 hours on the water per visit suggesting that many nonlocal visits involved overnight stays. Primary activities for water-based recreation at NRSP were fishing (43%), canoeing (14%) and other floating/boating (18%). Twenty-five percent of those surveyed reported a primary activity that was not water-based, with camping and biking being most popular.

Park visitors were also asked about questions about the importance and condition of a number of issues related to their recreation experience. Among the most important issues to users were safety, public access, conflict avoidance, and parking. Among the least important issues were signage, crowding, and maps. Interestingly, those issues ranked most important were also ranked highest in terms of current conditions. The lowest ranked condition was for restrooms, but the ranking was only slightly less than "good." These results suggest that management is doing an excellent job meeting the needs of users.

Visitors were also queried about area features complementary to the NRSP experience. These features can be divided into natural (e.g., water quality, water level, outdoor attractions) and service-related groupings (e.g., shopping, eating places, boat rentals, guide services). Among those surveyed, water quality and water level were far and away the most important features.

In fact, the third most important feature to visitors was other outdoor attractions. The service-related features not specifically related to users' outdoor experience were rated much lower in importance. For example, shopping was rated last of all area features.

In general, conditions for these features were highly correlated with importance rankings. Outdoor attractions, water quality, and water level ranked as the top three area features in terms of observed current conditions. Eating places, shopping, and bait/tackle sales ranked as the lowest in terms of conditions of area features related to users' recreation experience.

These results are based on averages across all users surveyed, but it would appear that at least a couple of conclusions could be drawn. First, the water and the potential for other outdoor recreation activities are the most important factors for the majority of users. Next, the fact that those issues ranked highest in terms of importance are also ranked highest in terms of condition suggests that major management problems are not apparent.

Finally, the most noticeable difference in importance and condition between area features occurs with eating-places. The importance ranks somewhere in the middle of the 11 features listed, but the condition is ranked dead last. Taken together, the implication is that users are primarily focused on and happy with the natural features of NRSP, however, they may be a market for improved dining opportunities.

The NRSP clearly contributes to the economic activity in the region and to the economic welfare of park users. In this study, we focused only on water venue users (about 15-25%) of all park visits. The estimated 155 thousand visits annually to the NRSP for water-based recreation accounted for over $5 million in total spending for their entire trip. Of this amount, close to $2.5 million was spent by locals and nonlocals in the four-county economy.

Spending by nonlocals led to significant economic impacts in the area. Nonlocal spending in the counties and towns surrounding the NRSP totaled approximately $2 million and is responsible for generating about $2.3 million in total economic output. This amount of economic output supports approximately 50 local full-time job equivalents and creates about $750 thousand in personal income.

Water-based recreation at the NRSP also generates considerable economic benefits for park users. These benefits represent the difference in what users would pay above what they are paying for park access. Based on conservative assumptions and the use of the travel cost methodology, it appears that the park generates between $1.6 and $3.4 million in net economic benefits per year to the 155 thousand water recreation participants. On average, this amounts to approximately $16 per person per trip.

Principal Investigators: J.M. Bowker, USDA Forest Service Southern Forest Research Station; John C. Bergstrom and Joshua K. Gill, University of Georgia, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics

Download the complete study (pdf 421 kb)
Also see studies of the Washington & Old Dominion and Virginia Creeper trails

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