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Legislature: State parks face cuts

Published January 25, 2011 11:25 pm

State parks • Funds cut would be deep and could include closures.
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Utah State Parks users could see seasonal closures, reduced hours, fewer rangers and perhaps even the closure of parks based on a legislative committee's approval of reducing the agency's general funds by a third Tuesday.

State parks took $3 million of the $4.3 million in cuts from the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee.

The cut, part of the Legislature's attempt to address budget deficits through spending reductions, is almost 9.5 percent of the agency's total budget, which includes user fees, grants, state gas tax money and off-highway vehicle (OHV), boat and snowmobile registration fees.

The $3 million cut is on top of $4.5 million in reduced funding to state parks the past two years. A legislative audit released last week also proposed $3 million more in general-fund cuts in the next two years.

The committee action Tuesday will be reviewed later in the session in light of updated revenue estimates, and some of the funding could be restored then. If not, agency officials warn of service impacts.

"You will see a reduction in law enforcement, restrooms not as clean, fewer programs, less maintenance and fewer interpretation and educational programs," said State Parks Director Mary Tullius. "There may be less curation of artifacts. Counties could lose boating and OHV revenues. It could impact safety. And there will be more cuts to snowmobile [trail] grooming."

Legislative committee members said they didn't want their actions to result in the closure of rural parks such as the Green River Golf Course, Edge of the Cedars in Blanding, the Utah Field House in Vernal, Frontier Homestead Museum in Cedar City and the Territorial Statehouse in Fillmore, which the audit recommended.

The State Parks Board recently approved golf, camping and entrance fee increases at many parks to increase revenue coming into the system, but Tullius said those increases were withdrawn at the request of the Legislature.

"Everyone wants to keep parks open," said committee House Chairman John Mathis, R-Vernal. "We may have to get creative and work with communities and find partnerships. Maybe the heritage parks [primarily museums and historic areas] will never make money but need to be saved for future generations. These are crown jewels. We just want to bring efficiencies to the system. We believe we can do that."

But is that realistic?

Utah Department of Natural Resources Director Mike Styler said there might be one or two parks that should be closed or given to communities as was the case in 2003, when Minersville, Fort Buenventura and the Jordan River par-3 golf course were turned over to local governments to operate.

"We can't guarantee that there won't be state park closures," Mathis said.

The Green River nine-hole golf course that the audit said required a $66.24 subsidy for each round played would likely be the first to be closed.

State parks stand to lose 26 full-time employees and 11 other full-time positions that are divided into part-time seasonal staff. That's about 12 percent of its work force.

Proposed cuts would also reduce the Department of Agriculture budget by $894,200 and the Department of Environmental Quality by $747,900, resulting in the loss of 21 full-time positions.

wharton@sltrib.com