State Parks Hit Hard Times
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
If you're planning a hike, a cookout or a fishing trip at your favorite state park this weekend, you may want to call ahead to make sure it's open. Especially if you'd rather not run into vandals or risk arrest for trespassing.
Budget cuts have forced several states to consider closing their recreational lands this summer, lay off rangers or trim back hours or services in dozens of parks.
State parks departments have labored for months to find ways to minimize the impact of legislative budget reductions and investment losses on park upkeep, services and public access. But in Alaska and Arizona, park officials say closures were unavoidable.
"Everybody's getting hosed, man. I've talked with directors of parks in other states and it's an ugly scene out there," said Alaska State Parks director Jim Stratton.
Stratton said that park services are typically one of the first things to go when money is tight. "People don't perceive them as an essential government service. [But] those of us in the parks business think that the physical and mental well-being of citizens should be an essential function of government, and that's what parks provide."
Stratton said that even after whittling down the legislature's proposed $1 million cut to $186,000, he had no choice but to close 11 parks in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys north of Anchorage and in Fairbanks.
Budget-cutting Republican lawmakers accused Stratton, a political appointee of Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, of closing the parks to make them look bad during an election year. Stratton says those lawmakers are just playing the blame game.
If politics are at issue in Alaska, they appear to have little to do with fiscal fixes elsewhere. Eleven turned out to be the unlucky number for parks in Arizona as well. A legislative accounting error knocked the system's funding back to 1991 levels. Lawmakers recognized their mistake but refused to correct it, leaving in place a 41 percent reduction in total funding.
Parks director Ken Travous avoided layoffs by closing seven desert parks with traditionally low summer turnout earlier this month. Another four parks where attendance slows down in the winter are slated to close later this year.
Spokeswoman Ellen Bilbrey said that local businesses and citizen groups that have volunteered to maintain basic services in other states like Alaska and North Carolina are not an option in Arizona.
"It's kind of like saying to the police force, would you like some volunteers? State parks are like cities in rural wilderness areas in Arizona ... with the ranger as the mayor, the fire department, the water department, the sewage department," she said.
Visitors who ignore the "Closed" signs at park entrances have been slapped with tickets for trespassing, Bilbrey said.
In Alaska, Stratton closed off vehicular access wherever it was possible, citing public safety concerns, but state law does not forbid public access. Toilets are locked, trash does not get picked up, trails and campgrounds are not maintained. "But people are still using the land, and it has just gone to hell," he said.
A woman who accesses her property through Big Lake North State Park called Stratton the weekend the park closed to complain. "She said there was fireworks, public fornication, alcohol, firearms and tree-cutting going on," he said.
The threat of system-wide park closures grew for the financially strapped states last fall, when Tennessee closed 14 parks and cut hours at 35 more. A relieved Gov. Don Sundquist reopened the parks in April despite ongoing budget problems.
Executive director Glen Alexander of the National Association of State Park Directors said that closures, reduced hours and services, or turnovers to private companies or local authorities are taking place or planned for later this year in the Carolinas, Illinois, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah and Virginia.
"It's hard to say what the future holds ... I would expect that almost all parks closed and portions of parks closed will be quickly reopened when the economy picks up. However, those divested are likely to remain divested," he said.