The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Cumberland wildlands grow in popularity and boost area economies

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OBED DSP Poster Web 

2021 economic numbers prove small parks have big impacts

ONEIDA — Both the Obed National Wild and Scenic River and Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area offer wilderness options free of the hassles associated with Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the country.

The Cumberland Plateau-area destinations continue to grow in popularity as more tourists seek solace in nature, a trend that began during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Those tourists also spend millions of dollars in nearby rural communities, some of which face chronic economic challenges.

Big South Fork recorded 834,724 visitors in 2021, the most recorded visitors in 20 years and a 10 percent increase over 2020.

Visitors spent $29.3 million in communities near the park. That spending supported 348 jobs in the local area, including the cities of Oneida, Tennessee and Whitley City, Kentucky, according to the park service.

The 125,000-acre recreation area, centered around the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, straddles the Tennessee/Kentucky line north of Knoxville.

To the southwest lies the 5,000-acre Obed National Wild and Scenic River, a smaller park service unit but a popular hiking, fishing, paddling and climbing destination.

In 2021, 247,826 visitors to the Obed spent $5.4 million in communities near the park. That spending supported 55 jobs in the local area, including the city of Wartburg in Morgan County, according to the park service.

“National parks are a vital part of our nation’s economy, especially for park gateway communities where millions of visitors each year find a place to sleep, eat, and explore,” said Obed and Big South Fork Superintendent Niki Stephanie Nicholas.  

Throughout the state of Tennessee, 11 million park visitors spent an estimated $870 million in local communities while visiting National Park Service lands, according to the park service. 

Here are more details on the study’s methodology and findings.

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