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.

Help rename Homolovi State Park

[Source: Scott Kilbury, KOLD]

Arizona could soon name a new State park.  It’s land that  already has the state park designation but operating under a different name.

According to the Arizona Parks Board, the state recently entered into a contract agreement with the Hopi Tribe for the operation of Homolovi Ruins State Park.

With the pending State Parks/Hopi Tribe partnership to launch the grand re-opening of this park on March 18, the State Parks Board has directed staff to seek public comment regarding dropping the word “Ruins” from the name of the park as requested by the Hopi Tribe.

The State Parks Board is open to any suggestions the public may have to offer about this name change and will discuss this at the March 17, 2011 public Board meeting in Winslow City Council Chambers.

Public suggestions about changing the name of the State Park may be directed to the Arizona State Parks website “Comments” section at or letters can be mailed to Arizona State Parks Public Information Office, 1300 West Washington Street, Phoenix, AZ  85007.  All comments must be received by March 1.

These Hopi ancestral villages at Homolovi Ruins State Park include four major pueblos, numerous smaller structures and site features ranging in size from one-room pithouses or simple artifact scatters to a 1200-room pueblo, and panels of petroglyphs with numerous depictions of katcina and clan symbols. The sites date from AD 620-850; AD 1050-1225; and AD 1260-1400.

For more information about the Arizona’s State Parks Board Homolovi Grand Re-opening, the State Historic Preservation Office or State Parks recreational grant programs, call toll-free at 800-285-0373 or visit the website.

The Fight to Keep State Parks Open

[Source: Shain Bergan, Tucson Weekly]

The slashing of Arizona State Parks’ state-allocated funds means parks officials have started facing a harsh reality: They may be forced to close several parks, in addition to the three that are currently closed to the public because of lack of funding.Their general funding was cut from $20 million to zero, so the parks will now be working on a budget largely consisting of self-generated funds made up of mostly gate fees, says Jay Ziemann, assistant director of Arizona State Parks. 

These self-generated funds equal about $10 million, falling well short of the $18.4 million needed to operate the parks currently open to the public.

Bellota Trail at Oracle State Park

Things looked grim about a year ago, as well, for Arizona State Parks. After a $10 million Legislative sweep of the parks’ Heritage Fund, parks officials faced the probability that they would have to look at closing more than half of Arizona’s 28 state parks.Communities, towns and counties, though, stepped forward, footing at least part of the bill to keep 16 of those parks open through temporary 1 to 3-year lease agreements.

For nine of those parks, third parties contributed enough to keep state park staff employed at the locations. For the others, the government staff has been replaced by employees and volunteers of the contributing parties, Ziemann says.
Now, only three state parks—-Lyman Lake State Park, Oracle State Park and San Rafael State Natural Area—-are currently closed to the public without lease agreements in the works. Despite the difficulties raised by the governor’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, parks officials are still trying to figure out ways to keep those parks open, Ziemann says.

Those efforts include talking to contacts at the State Capitol and trying to attract local communities to the table to negotiate temporary leases, Ziemann says.

Although Ziemann remains optimistic that agreements can be made to keep all the parks open, he concedes that temporary leases do not solve the larger issue of lacking revenue in the Arizona State Parks system.

“Right now, the goal is to get all these parks open to the public,” he says. “But this is not a long-term solution.”

So what is a long-term solution?

“We’re still trying to figure that out.”

McFarland is remembered as his building is celebrated

[Source: Bonnie Bariola,]

Photo courtesy of Bonnie Bariola

A ceremony was held for the reopening of McFarland State Historic Park in conjunction with the Annual Tour of Historic Florence [last] Saturday.

Leah Lewis, granddaughter of Ernest W. McFarland, was Master of Ceremonies. She told about times with her grandfather when she was a small child, saying he was always interested in their school work and encouraged them to further their educations. She also reminded everyone that her grandfather was the only person to hold the three positions of U. S. senator, governor and chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.

Mayor Vicki Kilvinger related to those present how much the GI Bill had meant to her and her husband. Thanks to Senator McFarland for helping create the GI Bill, her husband was able to complete his education and become a rocket scientist after having served in the military. Her presentation was very touching and inspiring, saying that through the efforts of Senator McFarland, her family’s life as well as that of many other service people, had been made easier.

Jim Garrison, State Historic Preservation Officer, explained how the first Pinal County Courthouse was purchased by Ernest McFarland and donated to the Arizona State Parks System to become McFarland Historic State Park.

Renee Bahl, executive director of Arizona State Parks, told about the recent renovation of the park. Unfortunately, as construction was nearing completion the state’s economy collapsed and no funding was available to reopen it. Through negotiations, the town of Florence was able to lease and reopen the park with the Florence Main Street Program operating it under the auspices of Manager Jennifer Evans.

Jennifer Evans is also the manager of the Florence Visitor Center, also housed at the park. For further information, you may contact her or her assistant, Ken Loerzel at 520-868-4496 or