My route home from the Montana capitol in Helena runs up the Missouri River just a few miles below its headwaters. In the distance, the amber foothills and snowy mountains lining the Missouri's broad valley look the same as when Lewis and Clark pushed up the river 200 years ago this July. At Montana's Missouri Headwaters State Park, you can still imagine where the explorers camped at the confluence of the Missouri's three tributaries.
That's possible because the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department manages the Headwaters as a primitive park, leaving most of it undeveloped. Preserving places where ordinary Americans can explore remnants of the natural world that molded their country serves one of the most noble of government purposes.
That opportunity may unfortunately now be dwindling. Federal, state and local agencies scratch for funding to keep parks open for all visitors. Utah's Natural Resources Department has scrapped free admission for seniors and saved $300,000 by turning three state parks over to local governments. Minnesota may save $300,000 a year by shutting down 12 small parks for the winter season. Two years ago, the number of visitors to Washington State's 120 parks dropped 21 percent after the state began charging $5 a day for parking--an effort to replace a $3 million budget cutback. The Ohio Legislature this spring balked at a similar $5 daily parking levy.
Other states are walking a fine line as they search to fill budget gaps in ways that don't fundamentally change the role that accessible public parks play in the civic life of the country. All states operate parks, and most charge admission and additional fees for campgrounds, boat launches and other constructed facilities. Kentucky doesn't charge admission but makes money by operating 17 "resort parks" furnished with fancy lodges, marinas and 18-hole golf courses. Most states set parks aside for more varied purposes. New York's Adirondack Mountains, North Carolina's Dismal Swamp and California's Anza-Borrego Desert, for instance, protect large tracts. Voters in the states have consistently approved bond issues that have pumped millions of dollars into state as well as local parks to preserve open spaces. In the past five years, California voters have approved $750 million in bonds for expanding the state's 178-unit system; a California State Parks Foundation survey found that two-thirds of supporters gave priority to using the money to preserve historic sites and save natural landscapes.
But as parks grow, operating and maintenance costs keep rising. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration has prodded California's park agency to figure out how to cover management costs before it acquires additional property. At the federal level, Congress has given 100 national parks and forests authority to charge new fees for hikers, boaters and campers, then keep the receipts to build the better trails, boat ramps and campgrounds that people are demanding.
Where fees are charged, "there's a more direct link between the park visitors and managers. Now you can go to a campground and there's actually a real toilet," says Holly Fretwell, a fee proponent with the Montana-based Property and Environment Research Center. Free-market theorists point out that a family of four willingly pays $200 to get into Disneyland for one day, but Yellowstone National Park charges them just $20 for a week-long pass.
Linking park fees directly to better facilities could backfire, though, if agencies are tempted to bulk up revenues by "improving" landscapes that should be left undisturbed. For the most part, the federal program isn't sitting well in the West, and the Colorado and Montana legislatures this year adopted resolutions demanding that Congress repeal a 2004 law making the fees permanent.
Some fiscal experimentation will be necessary, but governments can't in good conscience balance the books by shutting low-income citizens out and turning parks into synthetic playgrounds for the affluent. The excise taxes that hunters and fishermen pay on guns and fishing rods generates $530 million a year to use for protecting big-game habitat. That looks like a useful model. Missouri allocates a share of sales taxes to state parks, and Texas collects $30 million for state and local parks from a tax on sporting goods. I pay $50 for an annual Yellowstone pass plus a $4 truck registration fee and that gets me into all Montana state parks without charge. I'd pay more, maybe through a tax on binoculars, backpacks and boots, if governments would commit the money to preserving wildlands and keeping parks natural so all Americans can explore them.
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