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Utah not only state park system struggling with budget cuts

Published September 12, 2011 12:13 pm

Recreation • Utah isn't only state dealing with budget cuts.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Great Recession has legislators across the country looking to cut services — and state park divisions are often among the first to feel the pain of budget cuts. That has led to closed facilities, reduced services and fewer rangers.

Utah has endured major general fund cuts for the current fiscal year and could face more in the future.

"The majority of states are going through similar things in these tough times," said Utah State Parks Director Mary Tullius. "Unfortunately, this is one of those areas where legislators look when they cut back. Utah seems to be in about the middle of things with some states suffering greater losses and others not so much."

Closures • Across the nation, examples of parks budgets being cut are plentiful.

California has reduced its parks budget by 43 percent in the past six years. As a result, 70 of its 278 state parks are slated for closure by July 1, 2012.

Arizona's Legislature stripped its system of voter-approved designated funds and all general taxpayer dollars, forcing that state to lose 50 percent of its full-time positions, turn over seven parks to other entities, raise entrance fees and reduce hours and services. Legislators in that state took $2 million of gate fees collected at state parks away from the agency for other uses.

New York's office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has proposed closing 41 parks and 14 historic sites and is looking to reduce services at 23 parks and one historic site.

Idaho and Colorado have increased fees and reduced services at state parks. Washington state cut its park management and administrative staff by 25 percent.

"These are tough times nationally," said Phil McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors. "Most states are experiencing shortfalls."

He said that many state park systems are in trouble, and most are looking for different ways to operate.

"We are undergoing scrutiny because of the loss of available tax dollars," said Courtland Nelson, director of the Minnesota State Park system and a former director in Utah. "All states are looking at new models and new ways to generate dollars to offset the descending general funds. ... A handful of states are down to few if any general funds. A handful are well-supported."

Funding sources • The states whose park systems are faring the best are those that have a dedicated source of funding.

Michigan, Washington and Montana have a passport system in which citizens pay between $5 and $10 extra when they register any vehicle. In return, they get a license tag that gives them free entrance to state parks. In most cases, the fee is automatically charged, and vehicle owners must specifically opt out of the program.

Oregon and Colorado get money from state lotteries.

In Arkansas and Missouri, voters approved a small percentage of state sales tax to be used for wildlife and parks programs.

Many states are looking to raise fees for camping, day use and services such as golf.

"This is the worst possible time to be doing that," said McKnelly. "We have near record levels of unemployment and an obesity epidemic. We need to get folks outdoors and active, but when you try to increase revenue by charging higher fees, folks can't afford to pay it."

Renee Bahl, Arizona state parks director whose agency lost all of its general funds in 2009, has used a variety of methods in an effort to keep her financially strapped system operating under a $19 million annual budget that includes no money for capital improvements.

The agency turned some parks over to local governments or Indian tribes to operate. Friends groups have held fundraisers to keep some parks open. About 1,600 volunteers — the equivalent of 100 full-time employees — are working in various capacities.

"Instead of complaints, we are getting support from the public that uses state parks," said Bahl, who does not expect to see any general tax dollars return to support the Arizona system.

A big part of the reason that Arizona's parks have been able to stay open is that many are located in rural communities where the jobs they provide are valuable. Bahl calls parks an economic engine in Arizona that supports 3,300 jobs with an economic impact of $266 million. Of that total, $4 million goes directly into state, local and federal tax revenues.

"That's what we are about," she said. "And that's why communities have stepped up to keep parks open. That's a small amount to pay for economic engines in these rural areas."

Fighting to survive • Cuts and closures have park officials scrambling to find partnerships with local governments or private friends groups and, when facilities must be closed, looking to keep the most popular facilities operating,

In California, for example, officials say that at least 92 percent of the 2011 attendance will be retained and 94 percent of existing revenues preserved.

"We regret closing any park," said Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks, "but with the proposed budget reductions over the next two years, we can no longer afford to operate all parks within the system."

Tullius said Utah may be facing that situation in 2012.

"If the Legislature decides not to restore the $2.8 million, they [legsislators] will have to sit down with the governor's staff, our office and other interested parties and make some decisions about what the Utah State Parks system will look like," she said. "We can't continue to take the cuts. We need to sit down and take a good look to come up with some real solutions."

And that might include redefining the purpose of what a state park is supposed to be. Tullius said that in the 1957 statute that founded the agency, the system was designed to be accessible and affordable for the average Utah resident. If the agency's 43 parks are expected to break even or make a profit, then fees may need to be raised to the point where the original mission has changed.

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Facts about America's state parks

Total park visits • More than 725 million annually

Number of state park units • 6,624

Total economic impact on communities • More than $20 billion

Percent of visitors with children • 64 percent

Miles of trails • 41,725

Number of campsites • 207,063

Number of cabins and lodges • 7,161

Source: The National Association of State Park Directors —

Tribune series: The issues facing Utah's state parks

Throughout the summer, The Tribune has examined the issue facing Utah's state parks in the wake of budget cuts that went into place July 1. This is the final installment. The stories from the series can be found online at sltrib.com/topics/stateparks.

June 28 • What do Utah State Parks mean to you?

July 3 • Utah's 43 state parks are reeling from budget cuts, which have slashed general funding from $12.2 million to $6.8 million in recent years.

July 3 • Rock Cliff Nature Center at Jordanelle State Park closed July 1 because of budget cuts. Additionally, 23 full-time state parks positions were eliminated.

July 11 • Edge of the Cedars Museum, the largest federal depository for artifacts in the Four Corners, is holding on, despite being listed second on the Legislature's audit list of facilities under consideration for closure.

July 12 • Camp Floyd/Stagecoach Inn State Park and Museum has gone from what was essentially a restroom stop into a money-generating venture.

July 17 • The Legislature recommended eliminating law-enforcement positions in Utah State Parks. Rural law-enforcement agencies fear the changes could leave them shorthanded in times of need. Agency officials worry about public safety in the parks because of the reductions. Also, an update on ranger Brody Young, who was shot nine times during a patrol in 2010.

July 19 • Utah owns five golf courses managed by state parks. One, Wasatch Mountain, makes money, but the rest lose money — and Green River is in danger of closing.

July 25 • Budget cuts hit small staffs managing urban playground parks especially hard; rangers are left trying to juggle ensuring visitor safety with park maintenance duties.

July 26 • Rounds of golf played at Soldier Hollow and Wasatch Mountain's camping, hiking, off-highway vehicle riding, cross-country skiing, fishing, picnicking and snowmobiling make Wasatch Mountain the most-visited park in the state, with more than 360,000 visitors a year.

Aug. 2 • The gem of the state parks system very well may be Antelope Island. With its diverse wildlife and great views, it attracts nature lovers from all around the world.

Aug. 2 • Small, rural water recreation parks such as Huntington, Hyrum and Steinaker are among eight rural Utah State Parks that require close to a million dollars in taxpayer dollars each year to operate. Are they worth it?

Aug. 9 • To many, closing or handing off management of some state parks is the most obvious answer to the state parks' budget woes. It has been done before, but with mixed results.

Aug. 9 • Although it wouldn't be economically beneficial to put in more facilities at largely primitive areas, so-called forgotten parks have intrinsic value to the state.

Aug. 22 • A private foundation has taken over This Is the Place State Park, but still needs a large state subsidy to stay in business.

Aug. 22 • Park concessionaires and campground hosts help provide services that might otherwise be missing from Utah State Parks.

Aug. 23 • Otter Creek and Anasazi state parks might be small and off the beaten tourist track, but both mean a great deal to their small communities.

Aug. 30 • Scenic state parks provide some of Utah's most iconic sights and, in some cases, turn a per-visitor profit.

Sept. 3 • State parks employees do more than just manage parks —boating, snowmobiling and off-highway vehicles are also among their duties.