Creative Ideas for Saving State Parks

From the redwood forests to the gulfstream waters, state legislatures are trying to balance their budgets by cutting or eliminating State Park funding.  Citizens across the country are engaging in grass roots campaigns to keep their state parks open. While state park operators are planning to cut services and hours or create new sources of revenue, many state legislatures are voting on a proposal to charge additional license fees to replace lost funding.  With many states benefiting from State Park tourism, the stakes are high in this struggle to keep parks open.

In California, a state which is desperately trying to salvage its credit rating and balance its budget, cuts run deep.  Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed closing 220 out of California’s 279 state parks in order to help balance the budget. In the land of wild fires, unsupervised closed state parks could have very serious consequences.  State park funding constitutes only a small part of the state budget, yet generates substantial tourist revenue. A recent report by Sacramento State’s  Department of Recreation Parks and Tourism Administration estimated that the 74.9 million visitors to California’s state parks spend an average of $24.63 inside state parks and $33 in outlying communities.  This translates to $4.32 billion spent annually.

In response to the threat of state park closures, The California State Parks Foundation has started a letter writing campaign.  It also organized a SOS weekend June 20-21st where Californians were encouraged to visit their local state parks, take a picture or a video, and post it on-line.

Recently, the California state budget committee recommended cutting all state park funding, but also instituting a $15 per car vehicle license fee.  This program, called the State Access Pass, would replace state park funding for the foreseeable future.  In exchange all vehicles registered in the state of California would enjoy free parking and day use at most California State Parks.  The budget committee is taking a gamble since Governor Schwarzenegger has promised to veto any new taxes or fees.

Like many Californians, I am waiting anxiously to see whether my family will be able to continue enjoying our California State Parks through the fall.  I have written the Governor and my legislators in support of the State Access Pass proposal.  I appreciate that it keeps state parks open, while freeing up money in the main budget for other priorities like health care and education.  To have unlimited access to most California state parks for $15 seems like a bargain.  As a resident of California, state park tourist towns, I look forward to the sales tax revenue that an increase in state park visitors would bring to my community.

The State Park Access Pass is modeled after a program in the state of Montana. The Montana program is based on a voluntary vehicle licensing fee of $4 which gives residents unlimited access to Montana State Parks.  It is reported that only 25% of residents opt-out of this fee.  Washington State has also enacted legislation authorizing a $5 opt-in fee .  In Michigan, where state parks are not funded by the general fund, the legislature is considering an optional $10 license fee that would give residents unlimited park entrance at all state parks.

Other states are addressing the state park budget woes with reduced hours and closures.  In Massachusetts State Parks will remain open, but access to parking lots, bathrooms, and several swimming holes will be restricted.  New York State is closing some beaches to swimmers and shortening hours and days of operation at other locations including Niagara Falls State Park.

In Hawaii, state park officials are trying to creatively address budget restrictions.  Non-residents will be charged a fee to enter some of the more popular parks and slip fees will increase at small boat harbors.  Community volunteer groups are being called upon to assist in park renovation.

If you would like to get involved with grass roots campaigns to save your state’s parks, check with your local state park foundation.  For weekly profiles of beautiful state parks in California or to contribute a guest blog about state parks and budget issues in your state, check in on my blog for my weekly feature: State Park Sundays.

Bridget Smith is the mother of three and the author of the Unauthorized Legoland Guidebook

About the author

LiLing Pang is Co-founder and CEO of Trekaroo . She is a mom to two boys and a girl (13, 11, and 3) currently traveling through Central America. Together with her husband, Brennan Pang, they hatched the idea of Trekaroo one summer day along the California coast while searching for the best kid-friendly tide pool near La Jolla with their curious 2.5 year old.
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