State Parks Reeling From Budget Drought

By: - March 15, 2006 12:00 am

Although states finally are climbing out of a deep financial hole created by the 2001 national recession, state parks across the country have not yet reaped the benefits of the improvement.

Insufficient state funding and rising costs have left some state park systems struggling to make ends meet. In Kansas, campground bathrooms are cleaned less often and only the worst potholes on park roads are fixed. In East Texas, a 110-year-old railroad that is a key tourist attraction is threatened. And a parcel of future parkland that California bought for million in Wildwood Canyon sits untouched and visitor unfriendly.

“We are starting to see states come out of the real serious budget problems, but having said that, folks are certainly not where they want to be,” said Philip McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Parks Directors.

Funding for state parks declined sharply in the first half of the decade after a technology bust, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and a slow economy sent state tax collections plummeting. Now, all but a handful of states are reporting their brightest revenue pictures in five years, but state parks face a lot of competition for surplus state dollars. Parks directors, legislators and activist groups don’t even agree on the best way to raise more money to keep up the nation’s approximately 2,000 state parks. Nationwide, state funding for parks decreased by about 5 percent overall from 2003 to 2004, according to the latest available statistics in the Annual Information Exchange, a report compiled by all 50 state parks directors. On average, states allocated one-fifth of 1 percent of their total budgets to state parks in the 2004 budget year, the report found.

Scant funding has led to recent operational cutbacks – including shorter hours and less maintenance work – in Kansas and Texas, while state parks in California, Massachusetts and New Jersey have fallen into disrepair, according to parks directors and legislators. Even in Washington state, which amassed a budget surplus of about .3 billion, uncertainty surrounds the parks’ budgets after the state House passed a bill Feb. 13 that would eliminate a parking fee at state parks, a major source of revenue.

Although the Washington bill provides state parks with .6 million to fill the gap left by parking fees, it doesn’t address long-term funding concerns, a shortcoming that State Parks and Recreation Commission Director Rex Derr said makes him “anxious.”

“The Legislature has said, very publicly, ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to find another dedicated revenue stream,’ so we’re going to look to the Legislature with optimism that they will do something next session,” Derr said.

In New Jersey, where state funds are still tight, three legislators are seeking to put a bond proposal before voters in November to pump million into state park maintenance. Critics of the measure say the money would provide only temporary aid to a generally underfunded system.

Funding problems in Kansas soon will reach “crisis” proportions if the Legislature continues to hold down appropriations for parks, according to State Parks Division Director Jerry Hover.

Ten years ago, 65 percent of parks funding came from state tax dollars, Hover said. That figure has dropped below 15 percent, while the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks has increased visitor fees to make up the difference.

But the increased fees have kept many visitors away, and the resulting loss in revenue has forced maintenance cutbacks, Hover said. The parks department has cut back on mowing lawns, cleaning bathrooms and repairing roads, while office hours also are shorter. That has led even more visitors to stay away, Hover said.

Kansas state Rep. Sharon Schwartz (R), chairwoman of the House Budget Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources, acknowledged the problems state parks are facing. But she said a newly proposed no-fee state park outside Topeka – on land donated by a developer earlier this year – is a sign that the parks department is misplacing its priorities.

“We think we need to take care of what we’ve got before we’ve got another park,” Schwartz said.

In Texas, the Parks and Wildlife Department eliminated 73 positions effective Jan. 31 and has begun transferring some parks – including Lake Houston State Park and Bright Leaf State Natural Area – to local authorities. The deepest job cuts affected the Texas State Railroad State Park, where funding to keep its historic steam and diesel locomotives operating between tourist depots in Palestine and Rusk is in doubt.

Over the past five years, the department’s operating budget “has eroded to the point that we do not have adequate dollars to continue operating at previous levels,” according to the department’s Web site.

The Texas state comptroller last month authorized spending an extra .8 million for state parks, but that has only “put us back on our feet for the short term,” said Kevin Good, assistant to State Parks Director Walt Dabney.

“We’re still far from what I would say is a fully funded operation in maintenance and those kinds of things,” Good said.

While parks directors, legislators and activists agree on the problem of state park funding, they have not reached consensus on a solution. Visitor fees are unpopular with the public and threaten to cut attendance levels, but state parks have a hard time competing with education and health-care needs for more of the state’s budget.

Some states rely on dedicated taxes, such as taxes on outdoor sporting equipment in Texas, to support state parks. But measures to raise extra funds through other means, such as vehicle registration fees, have failed in states including Kansas and Washington.

Evelyn Merz, chairwoman of the Houston chapter of the Sierra Club, advocates funding from a wider range of sources rather than a reliance on parks departments to raise two-thirds of their own funds, as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department does.

“The philosophy has been that parks should be self-supporting. I think that philosophy is essentially flawed,” Merz said. “We don’t ask the libraries to keep their doors open based on the late fees they collect. It is a public asset.”

Private funding is one avenue that state park directors are trying to develop further, according to McKnelly, head of the National Association of State Parks Directors. He said the possibility of a nationwide umbrella organization to help individual state foundations raise money for parks is likely to be discussed at park directors’ annual meeting in September in Wichita, Kan.

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