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BOSTON (MainStreet) — Our national wildlife refuge system is a big moneymaker, pumping more than $24 billion into the economy every year and supporting more than 35,000 jobs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says.

The report comes at a time many polls have shown a growing disconnect between people (both adults and children) and the natural world. The phenomenon has reached such a supposed fever pitch that writer Richard Louv even coined a term to describe it — nature deficit disorder — in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods.

It would seem national wildlife refuges offer more than a glimmer of hope that people's interest in nature and wildlife is not only not dead, but robust enough to turn a healthy profit.

The findings of the report, Banking on Nature, were unveiled this month by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell during a visit to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

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"Our National Wildlife Refuge System is 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," Jewell 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."

In her speech, Jewell noted that about 46 million people visit the nation's 561 national wildlife refuges, which encompass more than 150 million acres, and revealed her plan for the refuge system, including an ambitious youth initiative.

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The report found that much of the money generated by wildlife refuges is due to wildlife-related recreation such as hunting, fishing and wildlife watching. In fact, The National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation found that more than 90 million Americans, or 41% of people over 16, spent nearly $145 billion in pursuit of wildlife-related outdoor activities in 2011. The overwhelming majority (71%) of visitors engaged in "non-consumptive" wildlife activities such as viewing and photographing, whereas 17% visited for the purpose of fishing and 7% for hunting.

The report also found that refuge visitors accounted for around $343 million in local, county, state and federal tax revenue annually. Altogether, the $24 billion national refuges bring in is more than five times the $492 million price tag for maintaining the system as appropriated in the federal budget for fiscal year 2011.

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For the report, researchers analyzed visitor spending at or near the refuges in the areas of food, lodging, transportation and other miscellaneous expenses (guide fees, equipment rentals, etc). Specifically, they discovered that refuges contributed an average of $4.87 in total economic output for every $1 spent in Fiscal Year 2011. "National wildlife refuges continue to contribute to the economies of their local communities," said Erin Carver, senior economist with the service. "As visitation has increased, not only have more people had the opportunity to enjoy our refuges, but the economic impact has increased as well."

Among the network of refuges, some of the biggest revenue generators were Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuges in Texas, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma and Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which produced $30 million, $174 million and $106 million a year, respectively. The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuges, which spans several states including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, was found to be another big economic winner. The refuge brought in $226 million last year while run on a budget of $4.9 million, meaning it accrued about $46 in revenue for every $1 spent in its budget. It also supports 1,394 jobs, the greatest number in any of the 92 refuges sampled for the survey.

Ultimately, though, it is the wildlife refuges in the Southeastern region of the U.S. that attract the most visitors per year. The region, which has more wildlife refuges than any other in the country, supports employment for 9,455 positions.

"This study shows that national wildlife refuges repay us in dollars and cents even as they enrich our lives by protecting America's natural heritage and providing great recreation," USFWS Director Dan Ashe said in a press release. "That's inspiring and important news, especially as our economy continues to gain strength."

— By Laura Kiesel