Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.E-mail: email@example.com
Once again, state parks are on the chopping block. To balance deficit-riddled budgets, legislatures in many states-including California, Arizona, Pennsylvania and New York, to name a few-have made huge cuts to parks' funds. Those moves come despite a recent uptick in the number of people visiting the parks-more than 725 million in 2009, according to the National Association of State Park Directors (NASPD).
Still, closing state parks is a relatively politically palatable option. In fact, a March field poll in California, where the parks budget was cut by about 20 percent, found that the majority of voters would agree to cut spending in only two areas-state prisons and state parks. In Arizona, officials have closed or slated for closure 13 state parks, and since 2007, the Legislature has reduced the parks system's budget by nearly 80 percent. In New York State, 55 parks are candidates for closure following Gov. David Paterson's $20 million cut to the parks budget. Pennsylvania and Idaho have recently slashed parks spending by about 20 percent, while Iowa has cut its parks budget by 25 percent and Georgia by 40 percent.
These cuts may be politically feasible, but they may not actually help the fiscal bottom line. According to the NASPD, visitors to state parks across the country helped generate $20 billion in revenues. That's an incredible return on investment, given that the overall budget expenditure on state parks nationwide is less than $2.3 billion. Before the recent cuts in Arizona, the parks system had an annual budget of $66 million. The state estimates that the system draws more than 2 million annual visitors, and a Northern Arizona University study tagged the parks' economic benefit to the state at $266 million per year. New York State Sen. José M. Serrano, who chairs the Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation committee, estimates that on average, the state receives about $5 for every dollar spent on the parks system. And if Utah privatized its parks, as some have suggested, the state would save $10.4 million a year in running the parks-but would sacrifice $67 million a year in revenue from fees and taxes.
There are other ramifications as well. In addition to arguments about quality-of-life enhancements and recreational resources, the fact is that selling or closing publicly owned parks may actually cost far more than maintaining them. In many cases, state parks have been purchased or restored with federal funds. Those funds come with caveats, such as requiring repayment should the properties ever leave public hands. And once closed, reopening a park could take years because of neglect and possible vandalism. With so many states already unable to afford capital improvements, how could they afford to reopen a park?
Shuttering state parks may be a viable option in terms of public opinion, but states hoping to fill budget gaps by closing park gates may want to rethink their plans.