Congaree National Park drawing more visitors, spending

jholleman@thestate.comMarch 12, 2013 

— Congaree National Park drew 120,166 visitors in 2011, generating about $2.93 million in spending, according to a National Park Service study.

The study, conducted by Michigan State University for the park service, estimated the park’s spending supports 48 jobs in the area.

Those numbers pale in comparison to the biggest national parks. Great Smoky Mountains had more than 9 million visitors. Grand Canyon generated $467 million in spending. The Blue Ridge Parkway supports 4,379 jobs.

While the local economic impact might not be huge, Congaree has risen in the past decade. A similar study in 2005 found 84,301 visitors generated $1.6 million in spending and 35 jobs.

New Congaree superintendent Tracy Stakely would like to see the park’s numbers rise. “We want to get the story out to more people,” he said, but added that increasing the numbers isn’t an emphasis in managing the park. The park originally was formed to protect a rare ecosystem — the flood-plain forest.

Hiking and paddling trails offer easy access to only a small percentage of the park’s nearly 26,000 acres along the Congaree River in southern Richland County. On those trails, visitors get a taste for the huge trees and rich variety of plants in one of the largest old-growth forests remaining in the Southeast. About 11,000 acres of the park is old-growth, meaning its massive trees survived the timber saws that felled most of the region’s flood-plain trees in the last century.

Congaree’s visitor numbers also are held back by limited camping facilities, and it’s far enough off major highways that people don’t just happen upon it.

John Grego, president of Friends of Congaree Swamp, believes the Michigan State study might have underestimated the park’s impact. A separate survey of 300 visitors to the park in 2011 indicated slightly higher spending levels, he said.

The impact could grow, especially if county infrastructure improvements bring water and sewer lines to the area, which is served mainly by wells and septic tanks. The lack of water and sewer discourages many of the types of businesses that typically crop up near national parks.

“I travel to a lot of parks, and it’s just a given that there will be at least some variety of private campgrounds, bed and breakfasts of every type – including working farms and ranches – outfitters, service stations/travel centers,” Grego said.

The park has grown physically in recent years, adding 1,840 acres with the federal government’s purchase of the Riverstone tract. That land stretches the park south to, and across, U.S. 601. The park management is working on plans for best use of the new property, with the potential for an entrance on U.S. 601. A parking area and trails near that busy road could boost visitor numbers before the next major economic impact study.

According to the Michigan State study, Congaree has less economic impact on its community than any of the other National Park Service sites in the state. That’s not surprising with Fort Sumter, which drew 857,883 visitors in 2011. Numbers also were higher for Cowpens National Battlefield (223,923 visitors, 176 jobs) and Kings Mountain National Battlefield (272,325 visitors, 135 jobs). And even though Ninety Six National Battlefield had fewer visitors (70,099), it generated more spending ($3.7 million) and jobs (50).

Stakely, who took over as superintendent in January, has been meeting with the staff to come up with a long-range interpretive plan for the park. The focus on the park’s ecological wonderland could be expanded to include more hikes and events that deal with the region’s history, appealing to a wider range of visitors.

Native Americans lived and traded along the river. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto passed through the area in 1540 and reported on the nearby Native American mound complex of Cofitachequi.

Francis Marion’s troops spent some time in the area during the Revolutionary War. After the Civil War, the area around the park had some of the highest percentage of African-American land ownership in the state. The park also is ideal for telling the story of the impact of timber production, both good and bad, on the state and the Southeast.

“We need to tell the stories that are missing, talk about the social history of the area,” Stakely said.

2011 parks impact

Economic impact of the National Park Service sites in South Carolina, based on a study by Michigan State University.

Congaree National Park: 120,166 visitors, $2.93 million spending, 43 jobs

Cowpens National Battlefield: 223,923 visitors, $11.85 million spending, 176 jobs

Fort Sumter National Monument: 857,883 visitors, $21.65 million spending, 244 jobs

Kings Mountain National Battlefield: 272,325 visitors, $9.99 million spending, 135 jobs

Ninety Six National Historic Site: 70,099 visitors, $3.71 million spending, 50 jobs

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