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The Allegheny National Forest

April 9, 2008
The Allegheny National Forest. It's been called a jewel, a majestic cathedral of Mother Nature that draws visitors from the surrounding cities of millions in the northeastern United States to the counties containing and bordering it. Traditionally when the topic of increasing tourism in Warren County is raised, the first place the public and officials look to is the ANF, with its campgrounds, trails, the Allegheny Reservoir, hunting and fishing - not to mention the county's equivalent of a Holy Grail: a resort. Common sense tells us: if you're going to jumpstart a tourism-based economy in Warren County, look to the natural assets of the Allegheny National Forest. The Esolen Report turns that theory on its head. According to PLACES director Gary Esolen, the ANF isn't drawing its visitor numbers from across the northeastern United States, but instead from its own backyard. 'The situation of the tourism industry in Warren County is much more dire than we had thought,' Esolen wrote in an email to the Times Observer on March 27. 'We went into this study with the assumption that Warren County was well-positioned to capture an existing tourism market that consisted, in part, of visitors to the Allegheny National Forest. We found, however, that 80 percent of those ANF visitors were residents of the four counties that touch the forest itself. Warren County does not have a ready-made tourism market waiting to be tapped, and building tourism will require some deep changes. It is a matter of product, not simply marketing.' Esolen supports his claim that Warren County's tourism industry is much weaker than expected in the first part of his three-part report. According to figures, the county ranks seventh of the 12 counties in the Pennsylvania Wilds in total tourism economic impact. Pennsylvania Wilds, in turn, is the weakest performer of the seven tourism regions in the state. The county's tourism economy has declined since 2002. Only 13 counties in Pennsylvania rank lower than Warren County in gross tourism product. Esolen went on to characterize the ANF as not being a significant tourism asset to the county as it now exists. According to Esolen, the ANF doesn't support significant development of lodging and tourism services. As previously stated, Esolen believes the ANF draws 80 percent of its visitors from the immediate area, along with a few visitors from the Pittsburgh and Cleveland areas. 'So a very small percentage of the approximately 1.4 million annual visits to the Allegheny National Forest come from any distance,' Esolen wrote. 'In other words, the Allegheny National Forest is not a tourism magnet that is drawing business from relatively nearby urban areas such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, etc. It is, instead, a local amenity, and for the most part it is being used as a recreational amenity by people who live very close to the forest.' People who live close to the national forest and don't spend a lot of money when they visit it. 'The market segments now best served by the ANF are among the least lucrative in tourism, because they are less likely than other travelers to stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, or spend money at attractions,' Esolen wrote in first report of his study, 'State of the County.' 'The recreational amenities it offers are largely designed to serve the traditional markets of hunting, fishing, camping, and the growing interest in motorized vehicle recreation, for the most part not powerful draws for visitors beyond the local area.' Esolen cites that camping facilities in the ANF are only filled to 30 to 50 percent of their capacity during the peak season. According to Esolen, 'There is little in the way of attractions, services or signage to support a driving tourist's explorations. Deep change will be necessary if the Allegheny National Forest is to become a powerful asset to a growing tourism industry in Warren County.' That deep change includes development of roadside businesses, additional lodging supported by restaurants and a wider range of recreational activities. 'That degree of change will be difficult to achieve and slow to come if it can be achieved,' Esolen wrote. 'More attainable and faster but limited tourism growth may come from offering specialized services such as guided experiences tuned to the market segments the ANF is now oriented toward.' The solution In part three of Esolen's study, he recommends the county form an ANF Working Task Force and a Long Range ANF Policy Task Force in order to bring about some of the change needed to increase Warren County's tourism economy via the national forest. Esolen envisions the ANF Working Task Force being a citizens' organization that meets regularly with ANF officials. The group would collect complaints and recommendations from ANF users and work with ANF officials to 'shape the visitor experience, providing support to the goals jointly developed by the task force and the Forest.' Esolen recommended the Working Task Force be made up of representatives from user groups such as snowmobiling, fishing, camping, hiking and biking, swimming, the Visitors Center, children's and family programs, interpretation, wayfinding and geomapping. According to Esolen, the group should have an active plan on how to improve the visitor experience to the ANF 18 months after forming. The group would be responsible for developing a forest user group website. Esolen suggested the Working Task Force be placed in a organization with professional staffing which is able to write grants and schedule meetings. He also suggested the county invite surrounding counties in the ANF to participate in the initiative, asking for support money in return. The second group, the Long Range ANF Policy Task Force, would be formed 'to advance the tourism development potential of the ANF by coordinating the goals of key elected officials who have a stake in tourism development and advancing those goals over the time through the Federal system.' The leadership of the task force would consist of Warren County officials and other elected officials in the area. The leadership would actively engage the ANF decision makers in the federal government. The group would meet quarterly.


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