Study Takes New Look at Value of Trails for Communities

by Kelly Tolbert, Recreation Coordinator, City of Prescott

Unique landscapes ranging from the signature ponderosa and pinion pines scattering the high country, alligator junipers and shrub oaks characteristic to the Central Highlands, to towering saguaro cactuses that are trademarks of the Sonoran Desert, Arizona is brimming with geographic diversity, often surprising visitors and attracting residents with its landscapes. 

The sheer number of multiuse trails available to Prescott residents and visitors supports the understanding local community leaders and planners have regarding the importance of trails. Navigating the recent uncharted territory created by COVID-19, one trend has experienced exponential growth here in Prescott and that is nonmotorized trail use.

Nonmotorized trail use includes walking, hiking, backpacking, trail running, mountain biking, equestrian use and other modes of trail use without the use of a motor. 

The numbers of cars at trailheads, more densely populated trails, and the numbers of phone calls with questions about trails are all indicative of these being a direct result of stay-at-home orders, as well as recommendations to get exercise while spending time outdoors with small family groups and practicing social distancing. 

City of Prescott leaders have been using trail-use data for almost a decade. In fact, the City has infrared trail counters installed at various locations throughout the City’s parks, lakes and trails. This data has been helpful in gaining state and federal funding to enhance, grow and maintain the Mile-High Trail System unique to Prescott. 

Recent public health conditions have led to cancellations of annual signature tourism-based events, negatively affecting our local economy. While it will likely be quite some time before the long-term effects of reduced tourism (and the economic benefits attached) are determined, the short-term effects seem to change daily, especially in a community like Prescott. 

The Knowns

Availability of outdoor recreation opportunities supports enhanced quality of life, and Prescott is proud to offer its citizens many quality options within proximity to the quaint downtown plaza that draws attention year-round.

Prescott has continued to offer options for responsible physical distancing during recent stay-at-home orders and will adapt to the future in hopes of furthering the traditions for which our great City is known. 

The Unknowns

Essentially, the return to pre-COVID-19 conditions will be in phases, and how long this will take is undetermined. Effects on the economy are also largely unknown, and while they can be tracked in some ways, without a way of estimating how long this will be, reality poses challenges for everyone. 

While it is widely known there is economic value from having trails accessible to communities, many variables such as Prescott’s own bed tax (revenues generated from occupancy in local lodging-based businesses) are less relevant, considering what would normally be the height of our tourism season is almost at a standstill. Historically, special events taking place from late spring through early fall are evaluated individually by their ability to fill local lodging businesses, assuming these visitors are also shopping and dining in our local establishments. 

Trails draw visitors, revenue

A recently published technical report conducted by Arizona State Parks, the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension and the University of Arizona Agricultural & Resource Economics Department used what is termed a “travel-cost method,” in which benefits of an amenity are estimated based on how much individuals spend in time and money to travel to enjoy a particular amenity.

Titled The Economic Value of Trails in Arizona, the study was funded by the Arizona State Parks Board interagency service agreement as a part of its 2020 Trails Plan. This type of trails plan is commonly used by agencies to provide data about trail users, preferences and opinions, as well as important issues facing recreation trails (including off-highway vehicle routes). 

Significant findings in the report included approximately 83,110,000 (midpoint estimate between 48,592,500 and 117,627,500 times per year) visits to the state’s trails over a year. Each visit has an average cost associated of midpoint $100.06, adding up to an estimated $8.3 billion in annual spending. 

The study also found, “Outdoor recreation amenities support the quality of life and health of individuals, communities and local economies. Trail access for nonmotorized and motorized recreation enriches the lives of community residents and visitors, providing an outlet for exercise, outdoor recreation and transportation. Results of this study show that a large majority of Arizonans consider access to trails as important or very important in their decisions of where to live and where to visit for leisure, even for Arizonans who do not participate in trail-based outdoor recreation regularly. For communities seeking to attract and retain workforce, or to attract visitors, trail access is an important factor to consider.” 

Using the travel-cost method to estimate economic value is different from the normal standard of measurement used by the City of Prescott, which is economic impact. Economic impact measures the circulation of money through the economy, whereas the travel-cost method measures how far people are willing to travel for an experience. These measures are valuable to understanding what resources are important to residents and which areas receive higher demand. 

The study referenced is also significant because it is the first of its kind. Other types of technical studies have been done, but this one differs in that all random respondents are in-state residents older than 18 and it uses the travel-cost method of study. 

Photo: Runners Discovery Trail

City of Prescott trail counts for the month of April pre and post COVID-19

  • Watson Lake Explorer Trail: April 2016, 5,684 visits; April 2020, 11,395 visits 
  • Peavine National Recreation Trail: April 2019, 5,563 visits; April 2020, 10,399 visits