State park closures grab headlines
The recession has been rough on state parks, squeezed by shrinking budgets and rising demand for their services. But despite a raft of threats to close state parks across the United States, most state parks will be open this summer.
State Parks facing the most stress
Arizona: Ground zero in the economic downturn, Arizona has been forced to close five state parks and reduce days of operation at four more. Click for Arizona closures.
New York: Forty-one state parks and 14 historic sites would not open this summer under Gov. David Paterson's budget-cutting proposal. The parks are in limbo until state lawmakers agree on a budget for 2010-11. Click for list of proposed closures.
Idaho: The state government threatened widespread closures, but relented after funding was found to keep the parks open this year, albeit with reduced services and seasonal closings at some parks. More on the affected parks.
California: The biggest parks system in the Lower 48 is eking by with higher fees, seasonal closures, and deferred maintenance, but a proposed ballot initiative that would raise car registrations by $18 (and allow all state residents to attend parks for fee) could come to the rescue. Click for service changes (pdf).
Fees: what to expect this summer
Many states are raising fees to recoup reduced state funding. A few examples:
- New York: Fees go from $6-$7 per vehicle to $8 per vehicle at "parks with significant amenities and high visitation." (Fee schedule here.)
- Oregon: Camping fees rise May 1 (first increase in 13 years), full-hookup RV sites go from $16-20 to $20-$24, and tent sites rise from $14-16 to $17-19.
- Colorado: Campsite fees of $4-$22 are now $6-$24, and the online reservation fee jumps from $8 to $10.
Then again, many states (Minnesota, Maine, Michigan, and Utah among them) aren't raising fees, and one (Connecticut) rolled back a major price hike imposed last year. Fees in Texas vary from park to park.
So what you'll see depends on where you're going. Each state funds its parks differently — some are riding out the recession with only a few minor bumps, while others are barely getting by.
Best bet for travel planners: Visit America's State Parks, which links to the parks departments of all 50 states.
The worst cases are well known (see sidebar). Five parks in Arizona are closed indefinitely, more than three dozen New York state parks are on a list to remain closed this summer, and California is pinning its hopes on a November referendum to keep parks open after this summer. Rapid declines in government revenues have forced budget cuts at parks across the country, resulting in rising fees, deferred maintenance, and reductions in park services.
Meanwhile, many parks have been contending with larger crowds, according to research commissioned by the National Association of State Park Directors. Joe Elton, the NASPD president and director of parks for the commonwealth of Virginia, said half of all U.S. states reported that state park visits rose last year compared to 2008.
Virginia's state parks saw attendance climb 4 percent from 2008 to 2009, Elton said. "I think the rationale for that is quite simply people have decided they can't afford perhaps the trip out West or the trip to the Caribbean or their European vacation," he said. "They're looking for a closer-to-home, affordable alternative and state parks meet that bill."
One example from Minnesota: Campground reservations so far this year are running 17 percent higher than the same time last year, said Amy Barrett, public information officer for the Parks and Trails Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"We hope the slow economy has helped people rediscover the simple pleasure of family camping, if that's something they hadn't been doing before," Barrett said, noting it remains to be seen if the campers will be back when the economy improves.
Minnesota is not alone. Trailspace asked 10 states about the demand for campsites this summer and the response was unanimous: reservations compared to last year are running from about even to significantly higher. State park campers would be well advised to reserve their sites early.
Threats to close parks vastly outnumber the parks actually closed. Virginia, for instance, had lost 22 percent of its general fund support since 2008 and considered closing five parks. Elton explains why they remain open:
"What the public understood was the five parks we were choosing to close would generate about a half-million dollars in general fund savings, and those parks stimulate about $5.6 million in economic impact for the communities where they exist," Elton said. "It just didn't make any sense to the public, and it ultimately didn't make any sense to the policymakers once they gave it a second look."
The return-on-investment argument has come up time and again in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has had to back down from threats to close nearly all the state's parks. Other states have similarly found ways to keep parks open, which may have fueled suspicion that closure threats are more political theater than reality. But things are different this time, says Paul Rogers, who has reported on California state parks' crisis for the San Jose Mercury News. (Disclosure: I worked in the same newsroom with Rogers for 10 years before coming to Trailspace.)
"The skepticism from some people that these may be idle threats is probably well-placed," Rogers said. "But, we're in the worst economy since the Great Depression, and most state budgets have huge, gaping deficits. That's real." California's $20 billion deficit has touched everything from early release of prisoners to massive increases in state university tuition. "So, I believe Gov. Schwarzenegger's threat to close the parks has not been a bluff and is very real," Rogers said, "and I think it's probably real in most of these other states as well."
In 2008, Schwarzenegger ordered the closure of almost all the state's parks, a harrowing proposition for a system that was once considered a showpiece for the country. A huge outcry motivated the governor to finagle a way to keep California's parks open with a combination of deferred maintenance, higher fees, and reduced service in the off-season.
That will get California through the summer of 2010, but after that it's up to the voters. A petition drive to add an $18 fee to California auto registrations to fund park operations has gathered over 760,000 signatures; if county voting authorities approve the signatures by June 24, the issue will go up for a vote in November.
Rogers says that while it's reasonable to assume the measure will appear on the November ballot, voter approval is hardly a sure thing. Supporters of the measure are expected to spend millions to push the measure through; the main challenge, Rogers says, is to win over non-users of parks.
"They're going to argue first that it's only $18, which works out to be the cost of one pizza, and that even if you don't use state parks, state parks benefit all of California, particularly rural economies — gas stations, motels, restaurants." They'll also cite parks' roles in educating kids and preserving wildlife habitat, Rogers says.
States whose voters passed similar measures have largely been spared the threats of park closures. Oregon will open a new state park next year, and Minnesota will have no fee increases this year. In the fall, Michigan will start using a "passport" system: those who pay $10 when they renew their car registration get a special license plate sticker that entitles them to enter Michigan's state parks without charge.
All these programs are designed to free the parks from relying on their state's "general fund" of tax revenue, which is subject to wide shifts in the economic and political winds. Elton, the Virginia parks director, concedes the programs work, but he still prefers general fund support.
"Here, the argument that we've been trying to make is that we're not just a nicety or some amenity that can be jettisoned in a difficult economic climate," Elton said. "We're a necessity, we're a core function of government, and we provide a great return on investment. We're spending $15.7 million this year in general funds and getting $175 million in economic impact ... you don't have to be Warren Buffet to know that that makes sense."