Parks in Peril: Across the Country, Recreation Areas Are Being Hit Hard by State Budget Cuts

Article excerpt

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Visitors hoping to get some R&R at their favorite state parks last summer may have found the gates padlocked, the restrooms closed and the docks removed.

No function of state government may be feeling the pinch of tough times as much as state parks, even though they make up less than 0.3 percent of all state budget expenditures. The grim news on state park funding comes from across the country.

California closed 70 state parks. Arizona eliminated all state funding for parks. Colorado reduced its parks budget by $3 million, Georgia by $10 million, and Massachusetts by $23 million.

The cutbacks affect a broad cross-section of citizens and may be one of the most visible ways people feel the pain of deep cuts in state budgets. They come at time when the use of parks is at an all-time high, attracting families looking for nearby, affordable vacation and recreation options. Visits to America's 7,000 plus state parks increased by 14 million between 2009 and 2010 to 741 million.

An analysis by Virginia's State Parks found annual visitor spending is about $18 billion nationally. Spending on parks for capital expenditures and operating budgets amounts to an additional $3 billion. And parks provide jobs. Maintaining state parks requires some 270,000 employees; another 319,000 jobs are pegged to parks' capital expenditures and operating budgets.

No Help From D.C.

Phil McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors, says that, unlike many other programs, state parks do not have a dedicated federal match, making them more susceptible to budget cuts. A few federal programs have aided parks, but those, too, are in serious jeopardy of being slashed. The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been consistently underfunded, and the Department of Transportation's Recreational Trails program has been targeted for possible elimination in recent budget talks. Federal money typically is allocated for acquiring land, not for the daily operations and maintenance of parks.

States have attempted a dizzying array of tactics to keep parks open during the past few legislative sessions. Some have had a dedicated funding stream for more than 20 years, although it doesn't typically pay for all operations. Colorado and Oregon have funded their state parks partially through state lotteries. Arkansas and Missouri have dedicated a portion of the sales tax since 1996 and 1984, respectively. Texas uses a sales tax on sporting goods to help fund parks.

None of these sources, however, can pay for all the costs associated with state parks. Although revenues from park admission fees, camping fees, golf course charges and restaurants can help fill the gaps, outside of certain very popular parks, they are not enough to make parks self-sustaining.

Looking at Fees

To help support their parks, Montana lawmakers created a park "passport" in 2003 that added an optional fee to vehicle registrations, allowing car owners

unlimited admission to any state park for a year. During the 2011 session, lawmakers raised the $4 fee to $6, but added the option to opt out of the passport "for life." Around 80 percent of Montanans chose to pay the fee in 2008, which generated about $3.2 million. About 88 percent of all state park visitors that year purchased the passport.

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"Parks are critical to Montana's brand," says Montana Senator Ryan Zinke. "When people hear Montana, they think about wide-open spaces, clean air, clean water, the last best place. Our parks do a tremendous job of promoting that image."

Chas Van Genderen, administrator for Montana state parks, says the strength of the license fee is that it draws money from a large base of citizens, and the vast majority of state park visitors drive there.

Michigan legislators also created a park passport. …