State Parks Struggle with Budget Cuts

The recession has legislators across the U.S. looking to cut services—and state parks are often among the first to feel the pain of budget cuts. That has led to closed facilities, reduced services, and fewer rangers.

Camping at Catalina State Park, Arizona. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“These are tough times nationally,” said Phil McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors. “Most states are experiencing shortfalls.”

He said that many state park systems are in trouble, and most are looking for different ways to operate.

Utah has endured major general fund cuts for the current fiscal year and could face more in the future, reports The Salt Lake Tribune.

“The majority of states are going through similar things in these tough times,” said Utah State Parks Director Mary Tullius. “Unfortunately, this is one of those areas where legislators look when they cut back. Utah seems to be in about the middle of things with some states suffering greater losses and others not so much.”


Across the country, examples of state park budgets being cut are numerous.

California: During the past six years California has reduced its park’s budget by 43 percent. As a result, 70 of its 278 state parks are slated for closure by July 1, 2012.


Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona: The Legislature stripped its park system of voter-approved designated funds and all general taxpayer dollars in 2009, resulting in a loss of 50 percent of its full-time positions, seven parks being turned over to local jurisdictions, increase in entrance fees, and reduction in hours and services. Legislators also diverted $2 million of park gate fees to other uses.

New York: The Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation has proposed closing 41 parks and 14 historic sites and is looking to reduce services at 23 parks and one historic site.

Idaho and Colorado: State park fees were increased and services reduced.

Washington: Park management and administrative staff were cut by 25 percent.

Funding sources

“All states are looking at new models and new ways to generate dollars to offset the descending general funds. A handful of states are down to few, if any, general funds,” said Courtland Nelson, director of the Minnesota State Park system.

The states whose park systems are faring the best are those that have a dedicated source of funding.

Michigan, Washington, and Montana instituted a passport system in which residents pay a nominal fee when they register their vehicle. They receive a license tag that gives them free entrance to state parks.


Monahans Sandhills State Park, Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oregon and Colorado state parks receive money from state lotteries.

Arkansas and Missouri voters approved a small percentage of state sales tax to be used for wildlife and parks programs.

Many states are raising fees for camping, day use, and services such as golf.

Renee Bahl, Arizona state parks director, has used a variety of methods in an effort to keep her state’s financially strapped system operating under a $19 million annual budget that includes no money for capital improvements.

The agency turned some parks over to local governments or Indian tribes to operate. Friends groups have held fundraisers to keep some parks open. About 1,600 volunteers—the equivalent of 100 full-time employees—are working in various capacities.

A big part of the reason that Arizona’s parks have been able to stay open is that many are located in rural communities where the jobs they provide are valuable. Bahl calls parks an economic engine in Arizona that supports 3,300 jobs with an economic impact of $266 million. “And that’s why communities have stepped up to keep parks open. That’s a small amount to pay for economic engines in these rural areas, she said.”

Fighting to survive

Cuts and closures have park officials scrambling to find partnerships with local governments or private friends groups and, when facilities must be closed, looking to keep the most popular facilities operating,

Worth Pondering…
Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

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