KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is betting on state parks, natural areas, forests and wildlife management areas in a bid to increase tourism in rural and distressed counties.

A task force consisting of state government officials and stakeholders has been compiled to take up the task of increasing tourism dollars through outdoor recreation for nine distressed counties. Distressed counties are those that rank among the 10% most economically challenged counties in the nation. 

Tennessee’s nine distressed counties include Lake, Lauderdale, Perry, Clay, Grundy, Bledsoe, Scott, Hancock and Cocke counties. State lands exist in each of the nine counties.

“The accelerated transformation of rural Tennessee is one of our top priorities,” Gov. Bill Lee said. “The unmatched beauty of our rural communities and vast natural resources they provide draw visitors from around the world, enhancing both conservation and economic development.”

TDEC operates all 56 Tennessee state parks and 84 state natural areas. The task force is being charged with increasing overnight stays and increasing visitor spending in the communities around the distressed counties’ state lands.

“The abundant natural resources in our state include vast areas that are in state hands, and we believe they have greater economic potential,” TDEC Commissioner David Salyers said. “This task force will look for ways to maximize these areas for the greatest economic effect. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the great interest in our state parks with increased visitors, so we are eager to expand that success in counties that need that boost.” 

Outdoor recreation comprises almost $9 billion of the state’s gross domestic product and accounts for more than 106,000 jobs.