States With the Most Parks and Wildlife Areas

by Thomas Semow |

America’s protected parklands have famously been called “the best idea we ever had,” and it is easy to understand why. State and national parks showcase the country’s diverse natural beauty, are open to all comers, and accomplish important goals for environmental protection and rural economic growth.

While some of America’s earliest protected parks encompassed iconic destinations like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Niagara Falls, state and federal park lands today are found all over the U.S. and have become even more common in recent decades. In 1959—when Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the Union—rural parks and wildlife areas totaled around 46 million acres in the U.S. By 2012, that number was more than 253 million acres.

One of the most significant factors in this growth was the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980. This legislation more than doubled the size of the National Parks System in one stroke, offering protection to more than 157 million acres of land in Alaska. But ANILCA is just the largest example of a wider trend of classifying lands for special uses like parks over the recent decades.


One of the reasons that states and the federal government have pursued this strategy is economic impact, especially for rural communities. Parks attract a lot of visitors, and those visitors need food, lodging, supplies, guides, and other goods and services to support their outdoor ventures—all of which produce economic returns for the areas near a park. The total economic value of outdoor recreation nationwide continues to rise each year, topping $400 billion in 2019 according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. More recently, there has been some indication that outdoor recreation has been one of few bright spots in the hard-hit travel and tourism industries in the wake of COVID-19.


At the state level, the economic impacts of outdoor recreation are even more apparent. Hawaii and Alaska offer some of the nation’s most unique natural attractions and have the highest levels of outdoor recreation value added per capita. Other states with high economic output associated with outdoor recreation include Mountain West states like Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado, which are all home to the Rocky Mountains and many associated parklands; New England states including Vermont and Maine, which host extensive woodlands and the northern Appalachian Mountains; and Florida, which has wildlife-rich wetlands and hundreds of miles of coastline. And even the state with the lowest value added per capita, West Virginia, is soon to see an uptick in outdoor recreation spending, having become home to America’s newest national park.


A state’s economic productivity related to outdoor activity is in part a function of how much land that state devotes to parks and wildlife areas. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alaska leads the nation in the proportion of lands devoted to parks and wildlife, and many other states known for their natural attractions, like Hawaii and California, are also high on the list. At the lower end are states in the Great Plains and South, which also have extensive rural lands but are more likely to designate those lands for agriculture than for parks and wildlife.


To find the states with the most parks and wildlife areas, researchers at CLIQ calculated the proportion of state land designated for parks and wildlife. The research team also calculated the state share of total U.S. parks and wildlife areas and the total outdoor recreation value added per capita.

Here are the states with the most parks and wildlife areas.

States With the Most Parks and Wildlife Areas

15. Delaware

  • Proportion of state area designated for parks and wildlife: 8.9%
  • State share of total U.S. parks and wildlife area: 0.0%
  • Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 111,000
  • Total land area (acres): 1,247,000
  • Total outdoor recreation value added per capita: $1,377

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14. Colorado

  • Proportion of state area designated for parks and wildlife: 9.3%
  • State share of total U.S. parks and wildlife area: 2.4%
  • Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 6,185,000
  • Total land area (acres): 66,331,000
  • Total outdoor recreation value added per capita: $2,126

13. Nevada

  • Proportion of state area designated for parks and wildlife: 9.4%
  • State share of total U.S. parks and wildlife area: 2.6%
  • Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 6,580,000
  • Total land area (acres): 70,260,000
  • Total outdoor recreation value added per capita: $1,774

12. Wyoming

  • Proportion of state area designated for parks and wildlife: 9.4%
  • State share of total U.S. parks and wildlife area: 2.3%
  • Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 5,861,000
  • Total land area (acres): 62,140,000
  • Total outdoor recreation value added per capita: $2,914

11. Rhode Island

  • Proportion of state area designated for parks and wildlife: 9.8%
  • State share of total U.S. parks and wildlife area: 0.0%
  • Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 65,000
  • Total land area (acres): 662,000
  • Total outdoor recreation value added per capita: $1,367

10. Idaho

  • Proportion of state area designated for parks and wildlife: 10.1%
  • State share of total U.S. parks and wildlife area: 2.1%
  • Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 5,358,000
  • Total land area (acres): 52,892,000
  • Total outdoor recreation value added per capita: $1,398

9. Arizona

  • Proportion of state area designated for parks and wildlife: 10.6%
  • State share of total U.S. parks and wildlife area: 3.0%
  • Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 7,704,000
  • Total land area (acres): 72,700,000
  • Total outdoor recreation value added per capita: $1,323

8. New York

  • Proportion of state area designated for parks and wildlife: 11.1%
  • State share of total U.S. parks and wildlife area: 1.3%
  • Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 3,355,000
  • Total land area (acres): 30,161,000
  • Total outdoor recreation value added per capita: $1,503

7. Florida

  • Proportion of state area designated for parks and wildlife: 11.4%
  • State share of total U.S. parks and wildlife area: 1.5%
  • Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 3,920,000
  • Total land area (acres): 34,320,000
  • Total outdoor recreation value added per capita: $2,285

6. Massachusetts

  • Proportion of state area designated for parks and wildlife: 12.2%
  • State share of total U.S. parks and wildlife area: 0.2%
  • Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 608,000
  • Total land area (acres): 4,992,000
  • Total outdoor recreation value added per capita: $1,517

5. Washington

  • Proportion of state area designated for parks and wildlife: 13.1%
  • State share of total U.S. parks and wildlife area: 2.2%
  • Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 5,572,000
  • Total land area (acres): 42,532,000
  • Total outdoor recreation value added per capita: $1,621

4. Hawaii

  • Proportion of state area designated for parks and wildlife: 17.7%
  • State share of total U.S. parks and wildlife area: 0.3%
  • Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 728,000
  • Total land area (acres): 4,111,000
  • Total outdoor recreation value added per capita: $3,890

3. California

  • Proportion of state area designated for parks and wildlife: 19.7%
  • State share of total U.S. parks and wildlife area: 7.7%
  • Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 19,623,000
  • Total land area (acres): 99,699,000
  • Total outdoor recreation value added per capita: $1,452

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2. New Jersey

  • Proportion of state area designated for parks and wildlife: 20.1%
  • State share of total U.S. parks and wildlife area: 0.4%
  • Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 945,000
  • Total land area (acres): 4,707,000
  • Total outdoor recreation value added per capita: $1,320

1. Alaska

  • Proportion of state area designated for parks and wildlife: 39.4%
  • State share of total U.S. parks and wildlife area: 56.7%
  • Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 143,904,000
  • Total land area (acres): 365,210,000
  • Total outdoor recreation value added per capita: $2,928

Detailed Findings & Methodology

The data used in this analysis is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). To determine the states with the most parks and wildlife areas, researchers calculated the proportion of state land designated for parks and wildlife. This was calculated by taking the acreage designated for parks and wildlife areas, and dividing it by the state total land area. In the event of a tie, the state with the most parks and wildlife area acreage was ranked higher. Researchers also calculated each state’s share of total U.S. parks and wildlife areas, which is the state’s parks and wildlife area divided by the U.S. total.