By Steve Ahillen
The latest addition to the Tennessee state park system is about 1 1/2 inches wide and 2 1/2 inches long.
It's not the world's smallest state park but a gift card that park officials hope will be a hit this holiday season.
Tennessee's state parks offer free admission, but the card can be put to many uses including lodging and camping as well as fees for courses and seminars that state parks offer.
"We are the first state park system to offer gift cards," said Brock Hill, deputy director for Parks and Conservation.
The gift card will range from $20-$500 and will be available in all Kroger stores in Tennessee in mid-November. It also will be available on Amazon.com and GiftCardMall.com.
The card can be used same as cash at any Tennessee State Park campground, gift shop, cabin, inn, golf course, restaurant or marina. The system has 36 campgrounds, 40 gift shops, 21 parks with cabins, nine golf courses, six inns, eight restaurants and three marinas.
Hill said Tennessee's state parks still have free admission at a time when the National Park Service is considering substantially raising entry fees at many national parks is something of which the state can be proud.
"We were created free, are free today and we intend to continue to be free," Hill said. "We think there is a benefit to providing access to all of our people. Forty-four states have parks where they charge to get in."
Keeping it free hasn't been easy.
"When we got here, the park system had a backlog of $125 million deferred maintenance," said Hill, who started in his job in 2011. "We put in place a plan."
Gov. Bill Haslam and the Legislature provided $135 million in capital investment, which has gone toward deferred maintenance and hospitality infrastructure to improve future operations.
"We also have a lot of historic property that came when the park system was formed in 1937, and we have been getting money to restore those facilities to their former glory," Hill said.
The financial situation is looking better.
"You don't ever get rid of the backlog, but we have made a serious dent in it," Hill said. "We have really grown our revenue and will end the year with a surplus that we can reinvest in the parks."
Revenue has increased by $6 million from 2012 to 2017 to where the state parks are generating $42.4 million in revenue to offset a chunk of the system's $85 million budget.
The cabin rental revenue has grown by 41 percent over the last five years, and camping revenue has gone up by 88 percent.
But, costs also continue to rise. The state park system has 950 employees, although Hill said only "maybe a dozen" employees have been added this year.
The number of state parks is up to 56 with the addition of Seven Islands Birding Park in 2014.
Other parks have added property like the South Cumberland State Park, which added 1,000 acres this past spring.
But, Hill said, the system now looks at return on investment when it adds property.
"With any campground and cabin array, we are looking at a potential return," he said. "We are looking at what the dollar payback is."
The cost of visiting some national parks could double or even triple under a plan being considered by the National Park Service.
Visitors to Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion and other parks would be charged $70 per vehicle, up from $40 at some parks and $25 at others.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park admission is still free, and GSMNP spokeswoman Dana Soehn said that isn't expected to change.
"I'm not aware of any initiatives to explore entrance fees in the Smokies at this time," Soehn said.
(c)2017 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.)