Magazine article Parks & Recreation

The State of State Parks: State Economies Are Rebounding Slowly, but State Parks Still Suffer

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

The State of State Parks: State Economies Are Rebounding Slowly, but State Parks Still Suffer

Article excerpt

The Pew Center for State and Consumer Initiatives recently reported on the state of state economies five years after the worst economic downturn in generations. Their general findings are that while there has been slight economic improvement across the board, "only a handful of states" are truly moving forward, and four states are in danger of slipping backward.

During the past five years, state park systems across the country have taken disproportionately large hits to their budgets compared to some other state functions. Every state but one has a balanced-budget requirement, and as the recession deepened, state agency budgets were especially hard hit by the escalating loss of revenues. State park systems took it on the chin, with some state park budgets suffering additional cuts within the same budget year and double-digit cuts over multiple years.

The percentage of general fund support for state parks was declining long before the recession hit in 2008. In fact, since 1990, the percentage of general fund support for state parks has declined from near 60 percent to less than 35 percent according to a recent report by Margaret A. Walls, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future (www.rff.org/RFF/Documents/RFF-Rpt-Walls-FinancingStateParks.pdf). The recession only accelerated the trend to reduce taxpayer-supported funding for parks, even though state parks are widely credited as being economic engines for states. Some state legislatures--with gubernatorial approval--dramatically reduced general fund support for state parks in the past few years or even wiped out general fund support altogether.

The economic straits led to two approaches to dramatically scale back funding due to extreme budget pressures. In California, the governor proposed closing more than two-thirds of the state's 278 state parks--virtually all of those that were not paying their way from fees and charges. A gargantuan public outcry caused Governor Schwarzenegger to rethink that plan, but the legislature maintained the draconian cuts, and the state has since followed a tortured path leading it to seek private funding and private sector operation of nearly 70 state parks by conservancies, friends groups and other last-gasp interventions. The Little Hoover Commission made a number of recommendations on how to develop future revenue streams and provide funding for state parks in the future. A new Parks Forward Commission is expected to produce a comprehensive plan for the beleaguered state park system.

In the state of Washington, however, the state took the approach that it would close no parks, but its financial straits were just as dire as California. Governor Gregoire, with legislative approval, proposed eliminating virtually all general fund support for state parks over a two-year period in the 2011-2013 budget and directed the park system to generate its own operating funds from an annual state park pass called the Discover Pass. However, revenues from the Discover Pass have fallen far short of expectations. Some parks advocates and state leaders attributed the shortfall to an inadequate messaging campaign and a rollout period that was insufficient to gain public acceptance and support. But no matter what the cause, the revenue shortfalls have continued. As a result, the state has been laying off professional staff and rangers, converting full-time employees to part-time status, and operating many parks unstaffed and unsupervised for significant portions of the year.

Closing state parks has been a tactic of last resort, but more and more states are turning to that solution to make up for critical budget losses. …

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