California has targeted dozens of state parks for closure; the state of Washington now wants $10 a visit or $30 annually to let you drive your vehicle into a state park, and if you plan to visit some of Arizona’s parks on a Tuesday or Wednesday, you are out of luck.
The weak economy and resulting budget cutbacks are prompting states to skimp on park maintenance, lay off workers, impose new fees, reduce the hours parks are open and close parks or try to find a local agency or someone else to run them.
But one state, Oregon, is an exception. The budget for Oregon parks has been trimmed about 4 percent this year, but the state has avoided layoffs, kept its park system in good shape and is still opening one new park every year.
How has that happened? It is because Oregon parks underwent their fiscal crisis about 15 years ago and found a workable solution.
For many years, Oregon parks were supported by gas tax revenue. That ended in 1980 when voters restricted the use of gas tax money to highways. Parks became dependent on user fees and general fund revenue, which shrank over the years. By 1996, the revenue shortage had become acute, and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission was set to close 64 properties. Emergency funding kept the parks open for a while, and then the park system found its salvation in the state lottery.
Voters in 1998 passed a measure dividing 15 percent of the lottery’s profits between parks and salmon recovery. Lottery funding was authorized only until 2014, but voters last year extended the funding indefinitely, splitting the 15 percent (about $86 million a year) between parks and recreation purposes and wildlife habitat and watershed protection.
Remarkably, the 2010 ballot measure received support from more than two-thirds of the voters and passed in every county in the state.
Chris Havel, the Parks and Recreation Department’s associate director, said the election showed that Oregonians not only value state parks, but also recognize their importance to the economy. State parks attract tourists who spend money at shops, gas stations and restaurants, giving rural areas, especially, a much-needed boost.
Lottery funds, RV registration fees and campground and park users fees account for about two thirds of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s budget of about $96 million a year.
Havel said the Oregon park system has not avoided the recession’s impact entirely. The state has shortened the employment season for temporary workers and pared other costs.
Oregon also saves money through its Parks and Prisons Partnership Program. State prison inmates have built cabins, yurts, boat docks, picnic tables and other items, while state and county inmate crews have helped with building maintenance, trail work and landscaping.
A Park a Year
While other states have been closing parks, Oregon has opened eight new ones since 2004. The latest is Bates State Park on 131 acres along the Middle Fork of the John Day River in eastern Oregon. It’s the site of a lumber mill that closed more than 35 years ago. The property includes a small campground, a picnic shelter and hiking trails.
It’s a small park, Havel noted, but it will draw tourists to a rural area, helping the local economy. This park doesn’t provide the economic boost of a lumber mill, he said, but it helps, and the lumber mills aren’t coming back.
Oregon’s biggest park expansion will occur in 2013, with the opening of Cotttonwood Canyon State Park in north central Oregon. The state acquired 2,443 acres in 2009 and is planning a park that will encompass more than 8,000 acres along the John Day River.
Pay to Play
While Oregon has found a way to fund its parks, other states are still looking. The State of Washington cut $65 million in tax money this year from its two-year budgets for state recreation lands and is trying to make the park system self-supporting by forcing people to buy passes to gain access. It’s too early to tell how well that will work.
Starting July 1, you had to pay $10 for one visit or $30 for a yearly Discover Pass to gain vehicular access to Washington state parks and other recreational sites. Sales of the Discover Pass amounted to $5.2 million in the first 10 weeks, but the real test is just beginning. Starting in October, vehicle owners could buy the Discover Pass while renewing their license tabs, and the fate of the park system will depend on how many people choose that option. The goal is to raise $32 million a year, with state parks getting 84 percent of that money, and the remainder going to the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when most states had just begun to set aside land for parks, they faced the same kind of funding problems that confront states in today’s economy. But they were able to turn to the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided work for unemployed young men, to undertake park improvements. In Oregon alone, the CCC worked on projects in 45 state parks.
The Great Depression was not a total loss for state park systems, and the Great Recession won’t be either if states use this time to find solid funding sources for their parks. Oregon has shown one way—dedicated funding from the lottery and RV registrations—and Washington is trying another approach, relying on fees and voluntary contributions. We just hope that all states find solutions and don’t unravel the great work that was done in past years to build up our priceless state parks.
Write to Mike Ward, editor at RV Life magazine, 18717 76th Avenue West, Suite B, Lynnwood, WA 98037 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Find First Glance online at rvlife.com.Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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