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State park closures grab headlines

April 27, 2010

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.

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.

Joe Elton, Virginia parks director
Joe Elton

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."

Big Basin campground
A campsite at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, the first State Park created in California. (Photo credit: Tom Mangan)

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." 


I think sometimes people don't stop to realize how many small businesses depend on these parks staying open and attracting folks. Even if it's just a small Mom & Pop general store.

The parks help drive the local economy especially in the areas I have visited.

This particular store we visited is not near a State Park I don't think, but these types of stores, outfitters, guide services, hotels, and restaurants, have slowly built them selves up in large part due to the visitors these parks draw.

While I personally prefer more remote areas to backpack in, these parks are very important.

It's not just about a bunch of nature lovers having a place to frolic.

In Maine the economic impact of state parks is valued at $100 million.

There are a lot of businesses and outfitters who benefit from the state parks.

I do very love state parks but if it came to closing state parks or something important like the Department of Licensing I think we all agree which would have to be closed... The Dept. of Licensing for sure!

State parks work just fine without state employees. It is a public area and should remain open. Visitors should make sure to clean up after themselves. Pack out your trash!

The question should be "Is the state park the propriety of the state?" I don't think it is. They may be managing it for the people but, if for overspending, they cannot do it anymore, we will need to get civilian volunteers to do the job.

I expect we will see a lot more state and federal managed projects going broke. I don't think they should all just close down. Years of fiat money shouldn't be allowed to bring the country to a standstill.

It also shouldn't be used to raise more fees or taxes on the people. We didn't mismanage their funds.

I found out today that North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment in the early 1970s which stated that access to parks is a fundamental right of the state's citizens. This is why there's no entrance fee in NC parks.

Thanks Tom, I didn't know that.

Wow I did not know that about NC either.

Instead of closing the parks off completely, would it not be a better idea to make them a wilderness areas. This would take less money to maintain and would still benifit local businesses. I mean if they are closed off and no one is allowed in than outside moneys will not be there either.

Instead of closing the parks off completely, would it not be a better idea to make them a wilderness areas.

Might work if pot growers or other criminal elements didn't have such a thirst for remote, unwatched territory.

Other problem is nature's tendency to reclaim trails -- if the park presumably would reopen in better days, somebody'd have to go in and reopen all the trails.

Another practical issue that New York is facing: states that accept federal water conservation funds are obliged to keep the parks they support open in perpetuity. Close the park and you lose that funding.

Ok, I understand the federal funding part but just to play the devil's advocate, if they shut down the parks, are they still maintaining trails?

Hmmm....I think if any particular State Park has front country camping with amenities, you know, power, water, showers, and toilets....short maintained trails, picnic tables, etc. those things draw a different (and bigger?) crowd than a wilderness area. If you shut down the State Park you will have to shut down the front country amenities if no one is there daily to clean up and maintain those facilities. You simply can not rely on front country campers to do that.

So without the Parks front country capability many people would probably choose to go somewhere else and the drop in attendance would have an economic impact I would think.

Many front country campers tend to go into town to shop, eat out, go see local attractions, etc. then come back to the Park to hang out and "camp".

I would also add that with a few members of this 'front country group' some form of law enforcement is needed. At least that has been my experience.

Much of the trail maintenance in the Calif state parks is done by volunteers, in particular the California Trail Days organization. In addition, many user groups do volunteer trail maintenance, such as the Sierra Club, the various orienteering clubs around the state, and scout organizations.

At the same time, as Tom M notes, we have a huge amount of agricultural activity in remote areas of national, state, and county parks, enough so that it is estimated that it is by far the largest cash crop in the state, and maybe the largest industry. Because of that, the enforcement activity has stayed at a high level in the parks which have closed either completely or are only open a few days a month.

Something’s wrong with this picture-not enough money to clean the toilets, but plenty to erect real slick looking closure signs. I don't know what they are putting in the coffee in Arizona, but given the amount of revenue generated by tourism, they seem intent on cutting off their nose to spite their face.

Per California
Tom, Jim or anyone with the knowledge hereof: does anyone have the link to the Ca DMV fee initiativepetition? I’d like to add my name, but haven’t seen the petition in my home town.

The whole idea of closing our state parks is crazy. A huge part of the economy depends on national and state park tourism. Heck they might as well close Hwy 395 (the main access highway to the east side of the Sierras, and main route from LA to Lake Tahoe) since it maintenance costs a very tidy sum too. But why stop there. Ok I digress.

Bill S. touches on one way we could remediate much of our budgetary woe, stop wasting money on the War on Drugs. This effort has cost a huge amount of money, yet the whole concept has seemed to backfire. Carlton Turner, appointed by President Regan in 1982 as the first Drug Czar admitted this much in a 1988 white paper. (He subsequently “resigned.”) His logic was iron clad. We (the US) have vigorously engaged the enemy yet the battle was lost even before the first shot was fired. Any war, including the drug war, is essentially a battle of economics, as much as it is a battle of brute force. Every dollar the US tax payer is willing to spend battling this scourge, the drug syndicates are willing to match 100 to 1, outspending and overwhelming our efforts. Hence the outcome of a frontal assault is predestined to doom. He concluded if we are ever to be effective fighting drug related crime, it would be by eliminating the profit motive, through legalization, regulation, and taxation of these contraband. Turner drew in depth comparisons to the war on drugs and prohibition. But ideology won over rational thought. So here were are today, spending huge sums of money to arrest, prosecute, and warehouse convicted drug offenders. The effort has diverted funds that could have been better spent on education or infrastructure, or just lower taxes. Now the war on drugs competes with the state park system to hire drug enforcement personnel over park services personnel. Talk about Reefer Madness, I think our policy makers have gotten a contact high from some bad paraquot laced weed (paraquot spraying - that’s another story). But again I digress, and don’t mean to hijack this park closure thread.

In conclusion we can very much afford our parks, but special interests and the acrimonious political climate has foes ready and willing to cut off Joe Public’s nose, despite his face, just to prove a point.

Tom, thanks for the article, well written.

Ed: organizers of the initiative drive have already turned over signatures on their petition drive ... now it's up to county election registrars to confirm them ... this is the last hurdle before the issue goes on the November ballot.

The war on drugs is winnable, the problem is that most Americans do not have the stomach for what it would take, and most of those in places of power are not going to prosecute the worst offenders, some who are members of law enforcement or members of local governments who turn a blind eye to the big drug players. Oh sure every once in a while they make some traffic stops or raid a house.

It has been my experience in the Southern Appalachians that the entire community knows who the big players are, including law enforcement.

In fact there was a case in KY where a law enforcement officer was living in a known drug house providing protection to the drug dealer.

I'm just saying it only takes a few bad apples to undermine the whole effort.

I personally would not waste tax payer money locking these guys up.

I would execute them.

Okay, just so I don't get hate mail, I'm only referring to the hard core big time guys in my post above.

Back on topic though, One of my favorite State Parks in SC is Caesar's Head State Park.

Here is a photo of one of it's overlooks:

Many people will go to a park like this that is semi developed, and staffed, that may not feel comfortable going to a Wilderness area, or a State Natural Area. I think it is good to have them visit, the experience of standing there taking it all in gives them a connection to the place and hopefully all wild places. We need their understanding and support in order to preserve the wilderness.

The drug war is not winnable. There is a drug store on almost every street corner of America. Anyway it doesn't say no drugs in the constitution. I am for getting rid of the DEA and starting a campaign "Just because your free and it's legal doesn't mean you should do it!" I expect it would make the country a lot in tax revenues. It would take away all the incentive for the war in Mexico overnight. There will always be people that do them anyway. I don't think they are criminals just for doing drugs.

If we followed idea. I would be able to grow some industrial hemp and make some of the products they enjoy in Europe. We can import these products but we cannot make them. I think that is wrong.

Back to the topic of State park closures. There are a lot of people that would love three square meals a day and a place to stay and are willing to work. It is called wwoofing. I would get some wwoofers and put them to work maintaining the state parks. They could even provide food for themselves because they know how to grow food. Just an idea.

Trailspace has some of the internets best 'get back on topic ' posters I've seen! I like how it works.

Anyway, I hope none of them State Parks closes.

I found out today that North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment in the early 1970s which stated that access to parks is a fundamental right of the state's citizens. This is why there's no entrance fee in NC parks.

I live in NC and I hadn't known that but that I couldn't agree with it more!

It's really sad to see some states resorting to closures. I'm hoping NC isn't considering them. The interesting thing I've noticed in the last couple months is that some of the state parks in NC I've visited have actually had some significant improvements. I was at Stone Mountain this weekend (great hike btw) and I noticed that the Stone Mountain road is newly paved. Hanging Rock a couple weekends before that has a very new well maintained greeting center and a couple of the trail heads had new construction. Last month I hit Raven Rock and there is a brand new welcome center, parking lots, and such. I suspect that some of these improvements are stimulus funding from the federal government but in this case I won't complain too much about those federal dollars.

Generally speaking though I would hope that states who do consider closing the parks take NC's approach that its a fundamental right and alternatively look to volunteers to keep some of the core park services alive and mothball other service until things get better. Also they should recognize that parks offer a bit of stimulus of their own by generating revenue for surrounding businesses for folks who aren't looking to take the kids to Disney World but can still afford to spend a nice day at the park and spend a few dollars.

My Two Cents.





Allow private donations to fix individual parks and services as needed by park users.

Allow Fish and Game Wardens to collect fees for the license to hunt, fish, and camp on park lands.

Some parks could pay for themselves with the user fees and that is fine. Let the rest go back to their natural state with hunting, fishing and camping by permit holders.

It's just that easy! Just say NO to more TAXES.

Tax revenue spent on recreational infrastructure does not go down a rathole -- it's an investment that generates extremely favorable returns. Not that much different from justifying the cost of a highway between two cities when the commerce between them will pay it back several times over.

Not to say every tax dollar is spent wisely on parks, but most are very cheap to operate and many rural communities get tourism revenue they'd have no other way to acquire.

I can understand the temptation to let the parks go wild; my main concern is how you'd prevent drunks, drug runners, and reckless ATV types from trashing them.

I have to agree with tommangan here.

I would also point out that not everyone is born a highly skilled backpacker. Many people seek a place to take their family camping in a setting that provides certain amenities, and a staff that can offer advise or guidance. Their experiences with nature in a semi-primitive setting (front country camping) can lead to more adventurous visits to back country areas as they gain interest and skill. I have seen this happen many times.




Let the parks go “wild,” and the access roads, trails, and infrastructure we take for granted will go to hell. Someone cleans and pumps those outhouses, maintains trail bridge crossings, puts out rogue wildfires, deals with human beast conflicts, and evacuates outdoorsmen in distress. The general public does not have the sense of individual responsibility to clean up after themselves, let alone refrain from graffiting every surface within reach; otherwise there would be no need for service employees to clean up camp sites, and repair trail damage. While volunteers contribute considerable to these efforts, they are not trained to use specialized equipment necessary for many of these tasks.

Private donations will not cover these expenses. This is one aspect of coexisting in a society where the libertarian notion of pay-as-you-go doesn’t work. A significant amount of maintaining state and national parks is financed floating long term debt, a feat very difficult to do when the ability to repay the loan is based solely on charity.
Gee, perhaps if we redirected a few trillion tax dollars, we could actually get something back in return, like our parks. We are closing schools for lack of budgetary depth, but building more jails. The State can’t afford parks for the people’s amusement, yet can readily afford telling how they cannot amuse themselves, and policing these very parks to preclude “alternative uses”.

I am ambivalent on the whole notion of controlling substances; I thought we learned during prohibition how futile this can be, if not what the negative social consequences are, when we attempt to police what amounts to personal lifestyle choices, when a black market profit motive makes some people willing to risk their lives to cash in on the opportunities of meeting consumer demands.

While proponents rankle at the notion the War On Drugs is unsuccessful, I think it goes without saying we all would lose our jobs if our effectiveness in our chosen professions was as dismal. While some think of this as a moral issue, I have come to see it as the big business of selling uniforms, guns, cell blocks, patrol cars, and yes, drugs. (Let’s not forget it is also a huge government work program that keep tens of thousands of enforcement personnel and defense attorneys gainfully employed.) It’s all about the money, baby. But not for the parks.

Is this a thread about state park closures or advocating the end of the war on drugs? Just asking, of course.

Is this a thread about state park closures or advocating the end of the war on drugs? Just asking, of course.

I can't speak for others, but my jab at the WODs herein was a statement to say our society will fund what it feels is important, even if they fail to obtain a return on this investment, and even it is at the expense of funding other programs with certain, substantive, benefits, like the parks programs. It just gravels me to hear the pundits of small government talk out of one side of their mouth, telling us government can’t afford tax revenue for parks, meanwhile promoting a huge program out of the other side of their mouth that even the heads thereof admit has totally failed to ever deliver the goods. This is dysfunctional by definition.


"We the people"... too bad "our" voice is not heard echoing off the mountain tops all the way to Congress...

When I was a child it was called bribery... now they call it Lobbying...

Just a thought...

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