Budget Cuts Take Toll on State Parks
By Sara Scavongelli, Special to Stateline
The campgrounds, historic sites and lush forests in U.S. state parks can't escape the effects of the budget crisis. State park officials report that financial woes are hacking at recreation programs and prompting fee increases, reductions in personnel and deals with corporations in parks across the United States. These changes come at a time when many state officials report increases in park visitors.
"The park system in the nation is one where it's first in everybody's heart and last in their wallets. The demand for outdoor recreation and camping is going through the roof, on a steady climb," said Roy Stearns, deputy director of California State Parks, where visitors have increased by 48 percent in the last five years.
In California, beset by a $38 billion budget deficit, state parks have taken a hit. After $35 million was cut from the department's $278 million budget last January, parks had to raise their fees, Stearns said. Ninety full-time park positions were eliminated and the 23 park districts were reduced to 18 to save office space and rent, he said.
On top of everything, the Golden State's parks need $580 million for maintenance projects that have gone unfixed, Stearns said.
"If the roof can stand another year or two, or if we hope we can get by, we do," Stearns said. "We can't go this way forever." Any further cuts will spell out closings for some of the state's parks, he said.
States and their parks face the direst financial crunch seen in recent years, said Glen Alexander, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors, a group comprised of the nation's 50 state park directors.
"Campgrounds aren't open as long, and beaches are going to the situation where it's swim at your own risk," Alexander said. "Parts of parks or whole parks are being closed." He cited parks in Tennessee, Arizona and Washington state that have grappled with closures.
To raise money, state parks in 42 states have entrance or parking fees, Alexander said. He said roughly a dozen states have negotiated exclusive soft drink deals with Pepsi or Coca-Cola to bring in more money an idea that critics fear will commercialize the parks.
Officials in Indiana's state parks, which reduced their summer workforce by 25 percent, are in the process of negotiating an exclusive soft drink arrangement, said Russ Grunden, spokesman for Indiana's Department of Natural Resources. The state's Natural Resources Commission will explore a plan that would allow corporate sponsorship at state parks a move Grunden promises won't lead parks to adopt the names of corporate sponsors.
"It's not like professional sports stadiums," Grunden said. "We're looking at a conference room or a shelter house at one of the parks that a corporation might sponsor and get a plaque or small sign."
The executive office of Indiana's Department of Natural Resources approved a draft plan in July 2002, said Jeff Myers, development director for Indiana's Natural Resources Foundation. A refined plan addressing corporate sponsorship should be presented to the Natural Resources Commission in October, he said.
Officials are exploring other options in Tennessee, where budget problems forced 14 state parks to close from September 2001 to April 2002, said Amanda Sluss, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. A partnership announced this summer between the Tennessee Ready Mixed Concrete Association, which promotes the use of ready mixed concrete, and the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation, a nonprofit conservation organization, will add maintenance enhancements to state parks, Sluss said.
Meanwhile, Arizona's state parks are smarting. In response to a financial plight, seven Arizona state parks closed last summer but have since reopened, said Kenneth Travous, executive director of Arizona State Parks.
"We've been crushed, but we're still here," Travous said. "Our operating budget has been cut from $8 million to $2 million over the last year-and-a-half. We are looking at running a park system with pre-1985 levels of support from the general fund."
The state's park system raised fees twice last year and depends on its 700 volunteers to maintain operations, Travous said. A hiring freeze instituted last June gradually has become a "hiring frost" where people slowly are being hired, he said.
Here's the situation in other states:
- A $1.7 million budget increase to the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission will allow the parks to remain at status quo, said Thuy Luu-Beams, parks spokeswoman. Four state parks closed last year, and three have reopened under private management, she said.
- Beginning January 2004, Utah residents 62-years-old or older will not receive free park admission and must pay half of the $1 to $5 day use fees, said Deena Loyola, spokeswoman at the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation.
- Nebraska's budget, approved in June, cut $956,000 each year for the next two years from state parks, said Roger Kuhn, assistant director of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. As a result, about 80 full-time summer positions went unfilled, Kuhn said. State park officials made other cuts, dividing parks into three categories significantly reduced in services, moderately reduced and minimally reduced.
"Those parks that are the busiest and generate the most revenue were minimally reduced in services," Kuhn said. "We didn't want to cut them very deeply, or else it would have a negative impact on the entire park system."
Although park fees have gone up in Nebraska, Kuhn stressed the importance of keeping parks affordable and keeping visitors happy.
Stearns, from California, concurred.
"The park system of the nation should be affordable to every single citizen," Stearns said. "If we raise the rates to where we break even or make a profit, we will price people out of the lands that they already own as a public."