State Parks Look for Ways of Surviving the Budget Ax


State Parks Look for Ways of Surviving the Budget Ax

Among some hikers in the San Francisco Bay Area, the quad-straining trail
to the summit of 4,344-ft. Mount St. Helena near Calistoga, Calif., is known
as “the stairway to heaven” for its panoramic views of the Napa and Sonoma
valleys. These views, however, soon may be off-limits to visitors — the
latest victim of the Golden State’s staggering budget crisis. The trail sits
within Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, one of up to 100 state parks in
California that might be closed by Labor Day to help close a budget gap of $26
billion. While the Department of Parks and Recreation isn’t releasing a list
of potential sites on the chopping block, the stairway-to-heaven park likely is at
risk because it has some of the lowest attendance figures in Northern
California.

The news from Sacramento could be a lot worse: Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger’s original proposal was to cut $70 million from the parks and
recreation budget, which would have shuttered 220 of 279 state parks. That
outcome was averted by a last-minute legislative agreement in late July that
leaves the parks people needing to cut just $16.6 million. “The situation is
still very serious,” says Ruth Coleman, the state’s director of parks.
“We’re charged with protecting these natural treasures and making them
available to the public, but for the first time ever, we simply don’t know
how we’re going to do that without closing some parks for good.”

And California is not alone. Budget gaps are forcing officials in just
about every state to scale back hours, reduce services and close even some
of their most popular tracts of open space. But rather than panic, park
officials are looking for alternative approaches to funding what was once
exclusively paid for by the government. “After years of suffering budget
cuts and scrambling for strategies to make ends meet, it’s almost like parks
people have had enough,” says Phil McKnelly, executive director of the
National Association of State Park Directors, an industry group in Raleigh,
N.C. “People finally realize there has to be a better way.”

This epiphany certainly didn’t happen overnight. Most states have sliced
parks budgets for the better part of the last decade — in some cases
shrinking ledger sheets by as much as 70%. In Colorado, for example, Bonny
Lake State Park in the Eastern Plains near the Kansas border had been open
year-round but now will be closed from October through April, and will also
trim its staff from four employees to one. “At the same time we’re cutting
back, we have one of the fastest growing states in the country, full of
people who come here for the beauty and want to be able to get out and enjoy
nature,” says Dean Winstanley, director of Colorado State Parks.

As states carry out these cutbacks, many park officials have started
investigating long-term strategies to find more reliable sources of funding.
Margaret Bailey, senior vice president with CHM Government Services, a
consulting firm in Beverly, Mass., says parks are trying to move away from
operating with money in their states’ General Fund accounts. These catchall
coffers historically have financed public spaces but in recent years have
been decimated by legislatures redirecting much-needed cash to fill other
lines in their budgets. Of the seven state park systems that are not
tethered to their General Funds, Oregon finances its parks with money from
the state lottery. Maryland uses a 0.5% tax on all real estate transactions
to fund its parks. Similar initiatives exist in Missouri, which dedicates a
fraction of the sales tax to parks, and Texas, which applies an extra tax to
sporting goods and recreational equipment.

“In healthy economic times, getting voters to approve taxes and fees to
support state parks is challenging but doable,” Bailey says. But in times
like these, she notes, it’s virtually impossible.

Non-profit organizations and individuals can help ease the burden for
parks, saving states money by volunteering for typically salaried jobs such
as trail maintenance and trash patrol. Such is the case at Schodack Island
State Park near Albany, N.Y. When the state announced last year plans to
close the park for three winter months, local residents banded together and
lobbied the state to let them assume responsibility for certain everyday
operations and keep it open year-round.

“Under the arrangement, we opened and closed the main gates, handled
plowing and trash collection, and sent a guard through from time to time,
but they volunteered to do the rest,” says Parks Commissioner Carol Ash.
“This kind of ‘not-on-my-watch’ activism can go a long way.”

Rich Dolesh, chief of public policy for the National Recreation and Park
Association in Washington, D.C., says additional funding options for state
parks could include transferring certain operations to municipal governments
and increasing
park-generated revenue for everything from campsites to dog-walking permits
.

Another option: outsourcing services such as fee collection, campground
administration, general maintenance and security to private firms for less
than what it currently costs state park employees to manage.

Some state parks are seeking partnerships with independent
vendors, who pay franchise fees to operate certain facilities owned by the state. These kinds
of agreements exist at parks in a handful of states including California,
where, for example, Angel Island State Park, near San Francisco, has a number
of concessions and ferry operators that pay annual fees based upon revenue
they earn by operating in the park.

Parks may also opt to solicit sponsorhips from
corporations and other private sources. This is the strategy at Oglebay
Resort, a self-supporting public municipal park in Wheeling, W.Va. The
2,000-acre park generates 99% of its $32 million budget with revenue from an
on-site hotel, cottages and a golf course that it owns and operates, as well
as donations and gifts that come in through a non-profit foundation.

Bill Koegler, vice president of operations, thinks this model could be
applied to any park. “We’re taking the university approach — a mix of
donations and pay for services,” he says. Down the road, he adds, he
wouldn’t be averse to building an endowment with financial sponsorships of certain
existing amenities in the park: rest rooms, benches or holes of golf.

Back in California, where park officials are scrambling to see how many
parks they’ll have to close, Coleman says she and her colleagues will
consider all of these options in the weeks ahead. In describing her
challenge, she referred to the park system’s strategic plan titled “Seventh
Generation,” which plays off an Iroquois Nation concept that every decision
in the present must consider how it will impact people seven generations
down the line. “It’s hard to maintain this thinking when you’re dealing with
a boom-and-bust cycle, but we owe it to the public to find a way,” she
says.
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