Bird watching, hunting or just picnicking. Whatever the reason, visits to the nation's 561 wildlife refuges are big business.
A new report says visitors to federal wildlife refuges generate more than $2 billion a year in economic activity, helping to employ more than 35,000 people and produce about $343 million in local, state and federal taxes.
Recreational activities such as birding, hiking and picnicking account for nearly 75 percent of total expenditures at wildlife refuges across the country, the report says, while fishing and hunting account for about 28 percent of expenditures.
The report by the Fish and Wildlife Service says wildlife refuges drew 46.5 million visits in 2011, with three of every four visitors coming from outside the local area. Visitors generated $2.4 billion of economic activity, making refuges a major contributor to ecotourism.
By comparison, the 401 national park units drew about 279 million visits in 2011, generating an estimated $30.1 billion in economic activity, the Interior Department said.
"Although national wildlife refuges are used less intensively than the other federal lands, they are a major contributor to the mix of outdoor recreational opportunities in the United States," the report said.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell released the report Tuesday during a visit to a wildlife refuge in Minnesota.
Jewell said in a statement that the U.S. wildlife refuge system is not only "the world's greatest network of lands dedicated to wildlife conservation, but it is also a powerful economic engine for local communities across the country." Refuge visitors come from around the world and support hundreds of local restaurants, hotels and other businesses, she said.
In addition to conserving and protecting public lands for future generations, the report shows that "every dollar we invest in our refuge system generates huge economic dividends for our country," Jewell said.
Jewell visited the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington, Minn., on Tuesday, part of a weeklong push to highlight the role of public lands in boosting ecotourism and conservation.
Jewell will be in San Francisco Thursday to kick-off an initiative to encourage young people to engage with public lands. On Friday she will visit a scenic area along the Mendocino coastline in Northern California to stress the importance of outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat.
The trip comes after Jewell issued a call for increased conservation spending at a speech last week. In her first major address since taking office this spring, Jewell urged Congress to push for full funding for parks and other public lands in the federal budget.
If Congress does not act to protect mountains, rivers and forests from development, President Barack Obama will use his executive authority to do so, Jewell said. Obama designated five new national monuments earlier this year and will not hesitate to protect historic or ecologically significant sites, she said.
During the government shutdown last month, national parks and other public lands became a focus of political tension as lawmakers bickered over who was to blame for closing the Grand Canyon and other national landmarks.
Jewell said one of the few positive effects of the shutdown, which she called "absurd" and "wasteful," is a renewed appreciation for the nation's network of public lands, from national parks to wildlife refuges to vast areas maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The Interior Department manages more than 500 million acres in national parks and other public lands — 20 percent of the nation's total land mass.
The report released Tuesday says refuge visitors pay for recreation through entrance fees, lodging nearby and purchases from local businesses.
Daily visitor expenditures were listed in four categories — food, lodging, transportation and other expenses — for six activities: freshwater fishing, saltwater fishing, migratory bird hunting, small-game hunting, big-game hunting and recreational activities such as birding and picnicking.