The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 5, 2011

Backyard treasure is economic gold

By Joe Malan, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

CHEROKEE — In 2007, Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge’s crystal digging area was closed after a vial containing a chemical was discovered.

The site was reopened in May 2009, and during that season, there were 21,000 visitors to the area. That’s according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Tulsa district, which Dr. Patty Wilber contacted because she was interested in the economic impact of the crystal digging site on surrounding towns.

Wilber, associate dean for economic development at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, said there were 30,000 crystal diggers in 2010 after the area opened in April. She said Tulsa district’s Greg Birkenfeld estimated each visitor spent, on average, $25 a day in Alfalfa County while at the digging site.

“If those 21,000 visitors spent $25 a day for that day visit, you have $525,000 spent in the regional economy,” Wilber said. “That’s over half a million dollars.”

Wilber said some analysts say $1 spent in a local economy will turn over seven times. Even if the dollar turns over only twice in the Alfalfa County market, there still would be a $1,050,000 impact to the local economy. Similarly, if you took the 30,000 visitors from 2010 and assume each person spent $25, that would mean $1,500,000 injected into the economy.

Susie Koontz, director of Cherokee Main Street, said she has seen the economic impact firsthand.

“From talking to our businesses, we get a lot of visitors in town who come to dig crystals,” she said. “It’s a big part of our identity.”

The area is the only place in the western hemisphere one can dig for a selenite hourglass crystal, Koontz said.

“In Cherokee, we’re very serious about the fact that crystal digging is right there in our backyard,” she said.

Wilber also touted the importance of the digging area.

“It’s a gem that we have in northwest Oklahoma for tourism,” she said.