Ryan Dotson says he usually picks one weekend a month to make a day trip to an area state or national park.
When the Ringgold, Ga., resident goes, as he did this month, to Cloudland Canyon State Park, he usually takes along some friends. They hike, lunch, visit other local sites and, of course, spend some money.
"My favorite park is Rocktown on Pigeon Mountain, and I like Lookout Mountain's Sunset Rock (in Tennessee), too," he said.
Mary Lou Romero, a student at Emory University, and her parents from Rome, Ga., found Cloudland Canyon recently. After their visit, they drove to Fort Oglethorpe and bought dinner.
"We really want to go back," she said. "We're thinking of renting a cabin and visiting again with more family."
Mr. Dotson and Ms. Romero are exactly the kind of visitors that parks and tourism promoters in Tennessee and Georgia have been counting when they recently prepared reports tallying the economic benefits parks bring to nearby communities.
However, at the same time that the nation's down economy is leading more people to low-cost public parks, budget crunches are prompting state government cuts at those parks.
Kim Hatcher, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said no Peach State parks now are closed, but the state's recent budget cuts called for a 40 percent cut in the parks budget, on top of previous years' cuts.
"We eliminated about 12 percent of our staff," she said, adding the state also has cut back hours at some of its 63 state parks and historic sites.
Tennessee parks will face some cuts later this year, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton said.
"The parks will keep all operations open through the busy summer season, though beginning Oct. 1 the golf courses at Old Stone Fort and T.O. Fuller state parks and the restaurant at Henry Horton are scheduled to close due to budget constraints," she said.
The cuts will affect 23 state jobs, 13 full time and 10 seasonal, Ms. Calabrese-Benton said.
* Tennessee parks bring 17 million visitors and $725 million.
* Georgia parks bring 10 million visitors and $650 million.
* National parks bring 277 million visitors and $13.3 billion.
Source: Friends of Georgia State Parks, University of Tennessee, National Parks Conservation Association
AREA GEORGIA PARKS
* Cloudland Canyon State Park
Total tourism impact: $13 million
Local jobs supported: 156
* Fort Mountain State Park
Total tourism impact: $6.8 million
Local jobs supported: 81
* New Echota State Historical Park
Total tourism impact: $1 million
Local jobs supported: 12
Source: Friends of Georgia State Parks, 2009 figures
Cloudland Canyon State Park alone received 201,316 visitors in fiscal 2009, according to records. Those visits, according to a report by the Friends of Georgia State Parks, brought an economic impact of more than $13 million to the community around Cloudland.
Statewide, Georgia parks lured more than 10 million visitors who spent an estimated $650 million and supported an estimated 7,600 jobs in restaurants, convenience stores and other small businesses, according to the Friends' report.
In the Volunteer State, a University of Tennessee study found that nearly 17 million visitors brought $725 million in direct expenditures and supported almost 12,000 jobs across the state.
Mark Fly, whose UT Human Dimensions Research Lab did the Tennessee study, said he hopes the study shines new light on the states' decisions to strip their budgets at the expense of the parks.
"State parks are a very good investment. They turn money over in the economy," he said.
Don Barger, senior regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said his organization did a similar study for national parks and found that the 392 parks nationwide generate $4 to local economies for every $1 of federal money invested in them.
"Last year, in the midst of the economic crash, visits at national parks went up by 4 percent," Mr. Barger said. "Everyone recognizes we're in hard economic times, but look at the numbers. People are voting with their feet. They are going to the parks, and that has a direct impact on the economy."
Ms. Hatcher said the Friends of Georgia Parks' effort to quantify the parks' economic impact is helpful.
"We're looking for creative funding sources," she said. "We're even considering corporate sponsorships of facilities."
Tennessee's 263-acre Red Clay State Historic Park near Cleveland has no campground or restaurant, but in the past year the park hosted one event -- the Joint Council of the Cherokee Nation -- that brought in 10,049 visitors over just three days. Many of those visitors had to stay overnight in Chattanooga or Cleveland, said Anna McAlister, park secretary.
The 1,200-acre Harrison Bay State Park -- with a 189-slip marina, four campgrounds and 24 cabins -- doesn't prompt many hotel stays, but it still brings visitor dollars to the area, residents say.
Park Grocery, just across the road from the park's entrance, "depends on the park," store owner Chris Patel said.
"That was the reason I bought it," said Mr. Patel, who has owned the store for three years. "And with the economy down, even more people are coming down here, which is helping us out."