State Parks Look for Ways of Surviving the Budget Ax

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Galen Rowell / CORBIS

Mount Tamalpais State Park in California could become a victim of the Golden State's staggering budget crisis

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 eliminate 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 past 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 will now be closed from October through April and will 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 at 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 have historically 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 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 small 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.

Nonprofit 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 (which aren't exactly flush with cash these days) and increasing park-generated revenue for everything from campsites to dog-walking permits (which would make park visitors foot more of the bill for using public space).

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 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 on revenue they earn by operating in the park.

Parks may also opt to solicit sponsorships 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 from revenues 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 nonprofit 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: restrooms, 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 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.