Still in crisis: the hits keep on coming for state parks

[Source: Parks & Recreation, by Richard J. Dolesh. Via: BNET]

The National Bureau of Economic Research, in a tortured bit of logic, declared in September that “the Recession is over.” Few observers of state and local economic conditions would agree, and the continuing cuts to the budgets of U.S. state park systems reflect the harsh reality that for the states, the recession is definitely not over. As state budget troubles continue, the outlook for most state park systems remains grim.

According to the recently released Biannual Fiscal Survey of the States of the National Governor’s Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers, revenues may have grown slightly in the past six months, but the lingering effects of the two worst years since the Great Depression have seriously compromised the ability of many states to provide traditional services to their citizens. The NGA report predicts states will continue to make budget cuts, including additional mid-stream cuts throughout FY 11, and asserts that to balance state budgets, states will either cut programs and services further or shift their costs to user fees or other sources of revenue.

Less than Stimulating Double-Whammy

Compounding the stagnant state economies is the double-whammy of the loss of federal stimulus funds. According to NGA, the federal funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that helped states pay teachers, fund state construction projects, and supplement law enforcement operations, increased the total federal share of states’ budgets from one quarter to one-third of their total budgets The stimulus ended January 1, and there is little sentiment in the U.S. Congress to provide additional bail-outs for the states and cities.

As if that were not enough, the near-term picture looks no better because many states are carrying huge debt loads from unfunded liabilities, such as pension obligations or debt service. California, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York top this list, but a number of other states are not far behind.

The cumulative effect of the state budget troubles has damaged many state park systems. Arizona state parks are facing the abyss with the state legislature having wiped out nearly two-thirds of the state parks budget in the past several years, laying off state park workers and closing a number of state parks, with more on the block in the coming fiscal year. California’s governor last year proposed closing up to 220 of 279 state parks when the legislature could not pass the state budget. Though Arnold Schwarzenegger quickly backed down in the face of fierce public reaction, funding for the state parks hangs by a thread. The resounding rejection last November of Prop 21 in California, a ballot measure to create a new vehicle registration fee that would have been dedicated to the state park system, has left supporters chagrined and the future of California state parks deeply uncertain.

In New York, a budget agreement by the legislature and the governor reversed the planned closure of more than 100 state parks; but recently, its governor announced another state park closure due to continuing budget troubles. In the coming year, Nevada and Idaho may be looking at closing state parks. Illinois, New Jersey, and other states may not be far behind.

No More Magic Bullets

What was once unthinkable–the closure of state parks because of budget shortfalls–has rapidly become a reality in many states.

The longer-term implications of the present state budget troubles do not bode well for the future health of many state park systems. Beset by an aging workforce, deteriorating infrastructure, and a growing maintenance backlog, a number of state park systems are turning to a variety of scorched earth policies to hold on. These include reducing staff, limiting hours of operation, reducing law enforcement patrol, and temporarily or permanently closing facilities within parks. Some systems have already begun to implement plans to privatize or lease state parks and this is a trend that is expected to grow. Others are planning to lease state parks to local governments or nonprofit organizations, and some are considering plans to contract operations of entire state parks to private management companies.

Phil McNelly, executive director of the National Association of State Parks, notes that there will be 29 new governors taking office this month, the largest cohort of new governors in generations. “Change is imminent, no matter which party takes control,” McNelly predicts.

The new realities facing state parks include the serious issues of increased liability and risk management due to the reduced ability to provide law enforcement; the continuing deterioration of park infrastructure such as roads, bridges, buildings, and other public safety concerns; increasing revenues to supplement operating funds when there is little or no prospect of capital funding for upgrading facilities that do produce revenue.

Bright Spots

While most of the news about state parks remains bleak, there are some bright spots on the horizon. Some states have dealt with the crisis better than others because they have taken innovative approaches to creating long-term sustainable funding mechanisms. Although the California ballot measure to dedicate funds from a vehicle state park pass failed, in Michigan, a more modest proposal based on a similar program in Montana, passed the legislature and is expected to generate between $20 million and $40 million in dedicated funds for the state park system. A crucial difference between Michigan’s program and California’s proposal is that Michigan’s is voluntary, In Michigan, a state resident can opt in to pay for the annual pass; California’s would have been mandatory. Post-election surveys in California note that voters objected to “ballot-box budgeting,” rejecting Prop 21 by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin.

Recent developments in Georgia offer a good example for a sustainable path to long-term funding for state parks, Faced with a crushing 46 percent cut in general funds since 2008. Georgia state parks were directed by the governor and legislature to “pursue a strategy of self-sufficiency,” according to state park director Becky Kelley. The state park system responded with a business plan entitled “Direction 2015” which identifies 60 park sites for study over the next three years through evaluating needs, analyzing capacity, and producing business plans for each park in order to bring these sites to full self-sufficiency. “We are trying to transition to the future while protecting and enhancing our natural and cultural assets in a way that is sensitive to the needs of local communities, promotes local economies, and is responsive to protecting our treasured resources,” Kelley says.

An analysis of the economic benefit of the Georgia state park system by state economic development office shows over $650 million in economic benefit to the state and 7,000-8,000 jobs that are dependent on or related to the state parks. “We need to take control of our own destiny,” Kelley says, “There are no longer any magic bullets.”

Other states are implementing similar plans to increase the ability of the state parks to generate revenues through fees and charges. They are increasingly engaging outside consultants from the private sector in golf, hospitality, and other fields, and are engaging the support of elected officials and local governments to tangibly show the extraordinary economic value of parks to the state’s economy.

Ever Popular by any Measure

Despite the negative projections for state parks funding over the short term, public support for parks and conservation remains high, Visitation to state and local parks continues to grow, while the recent passage of a dedicated tax in Iowa for conservation and the continuing 75 percent rate of passage for bond issues and referenda related to parks and open space across the country demonstrates resounding public support for parks. Such support is crucial, as recent events in Virginia have shown. When incoming governor Bob McDonnell announced the closing of five state parks shortly after taking office, the Virginia Association for Parks and other citizen advocacy groups turned the governor’s opinion around, a development that led ultimately to the rescinding of closures and a modest increase in the state parks’ budget.

The worst may yet be to come for state park budgets over the next few years, but park systems that can demonstrate resiliency and innovation by improving their ability to generate revenues and by building the highest possible level of public support will weather this current storm.

RICHARD J. DOLESH is NRPA Chief of Public Policy.

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