Struggling State Parks Seek New Ways to Survive

Budget cutbacks are forcing many of them to find more sustainable funding models. See how your state's parks are funded.
by | December 2016
Day Pond State Park in Connecticut (FlickrCC/Jay McAnally)

When Connecticut’s parks were hit with a 10 percent funding cut earlier this year, park officials needed to take some drastic steps. They closed several campgrounds for the season as early as July. Lifeguards oversaw beaches less frequently. And, at some sites, crews stopped mowing the grass.

Connecticut’s state park system is one of only three in the nation that are almost completely dependent on the state general fund for operations, so the funding reduction dealt a particularly severe blow. But it’s a scenario that’s increasingly common around the country as state parks cope with budget cutbacks. It’s spurred a search for new sources of revenue and a push for more sustainable funding models.

Across all 50 states, parks generate an average of 45 percent of funding for their operating expenses, according to data from the National Association of State Park Directors. But in Connecticut, parks keep practically none of the approximately $6 million they raise in revenue each year. The money is funneled to the general fund, and it’s up to the legislature to decide how much to send back. As a share of the total state operating budget, Connecticut’s park funding is second-lowest in the country, with only Wisconsin trailing behind. 

Although the state’s lawmakers have floated several ideas over the years for bailing out the park system, no significant steps have been taken. But the recent cutbacks have brought a greater sense of urgency to the issue. That’s been true in other places as well. Earlier this year, West Virginia shuttered several state park pools and laid off employees. In Illinois, a budget stalemate led to the closure of two parks. “All of them are more challenged to be more attentive to revenue generation and fiscal sustainability,” says Lewis Ledford, who heads the parks directors association.

Connecticut state Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., who co-chairs the Senate environment committee, says all options should be on the table in the search for new revenue streams. He has supported asking for a voluntary $5 parks donation as part of motor vehicle registration, and he says lawmakers should consider collecting fees for single-use plastic bags or expanding the list of beverages subject to container deposits. “If we can say the money is going to a dedicated fund,” he says, “people will buy into that as opposed to it being just another fee.”

Eighteen states offer vanity license plates to raise revenue for parks. All but five states solicit donations. Adding a tax to gasoline or real estate transactions is another common approach. A number of states also apply various types of registration fees.

Ledford attributes differences in the way park systems are funded in large part to their varying missions. State park systems that are responsible for conservation efforts and maintaining large tracts of land don’t generate as much as those focused more on recreation.

Advocates point out the economic activity and other benefits that parks support. One University of Connecticut study estimated that state-managed parks and forests drive up the value of nearby homes, yielding an additional $3.1 to $5.4 million in property taxes annually. “We’re really fundamentally looking at state parks in the wrong way,” Kennedy says. “We need to be thinking of how we are going to use these parks as central assets to grow business, grow our economy and grow our state as a tourist destination.”

Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, says that his group wants the park system to seek new sources of revenue, but also wants the legislature to dedicate a portion of the money that is raised back into the system. It’s likely that park visitors already assume fees they pay go directly to the parks instead of the state’s general fund. “If parks were able to keep all or a portion of those funds,” Hammerling says, “they would have an incentive to think a bit more entrepreneurially.”

New Hampshire is the only state where parks are entirely self-funded, with the exception of capital expenditures. One way the parks there have managed without any added state funding is by greatly expanding their retail sales program. About 30 stores operate throughout New Hampshire’s campgrounds and beaches. In the last fiscal year, the state collected $4.8 million in retail sales, or about 30 percent of total park revenues. A state-owned ski resort and natural gorge attraction serve as other reliable sources of park revenue.

Because New Hampshire state parks are self-funded, park officials have a pretty good idea of how much money they’ll be working with each year. “We’ve been in this model for a long time, so we can take the ups and downs,” says Amy Bassett, of the state’s Division of Travel and Tourism Development.

New Hampshire’s user fees are higher than those in most other states -- the cost of annual park passes ranges from $60 to $175. Some in Connecticut have called for higher user fees as a partial solution to their problem. Kennedy cites raising the price of wedding rentals for the Gillette Castle overlooking the Connecticut River -- currently, they cost just $285.

In some places, local governments have stepped in to prop up ailing park systems. Budget cuts closed five of Alabama’s less-trafficked state parks in 2015, but all have since reopened through partnerships. The state leased some of the parks to local jurisdictions, which took over management. Other localities offered to assist with cleanup efforts.

If there’s good news for state parks, it’s that they continue to enjoy strong public support. In November, Alabama voters passed an amendment to the state constitution making it illegal to use funds either generated by or earmarked for state parks for other purposes. Rhode Island voters approved a bond issue funding improvements at state parks, while Missouri voters renewed a sales tax supporting state parks, historic sites and conservation programs.  

NOTE: Figures represent funding sources for operating expenses for FY 2014-2015.

SOURCE: National Association of State Park Directors Annual Information Exchange