Stateline Story

Cash-Strapped State Parks Struggle to Stay Open

Advocates for California's financially beleaguered state parks system celebrated a victory last week after lawmakers passed a bill that would make it easier for some of the 70 state parks threatened with closure next year to remain in business.

But the law, if signed by Governor Jerry Brown, would be far from a panacea for a parks system that saw an $11 million cut in its 2011 state budget and anticipates the same reduction in 2012 — a situation that Elizabeth Goldstein, President of the California Parks Foundation, describes as "devastating."

The California bill would allow up to 20 state parks to enter into operating agreements with private nonprofit organizations. Two California parks have already forged agreements with nonprofits through separate legislation, and corporate sponsorships — a growing trend for state parks that Stateline examined in 2010 — have netted close to $2 million for California parks in recent years.  But such efforts, even if successful, will raise only a small fraction of the roughly $350 million it takes to operate the vast parks system.

It is a scenario that is playing out all across the country. New York officials have proposed closing 41 of the state's 169 operating parks and reducing services at 23 others. Utah's legislature last year cut $3 million from a park system that spent $30 million to operate the previous year. Iowa has slashed funds for the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees state parks, by about 40 percent in the past six years.

Two years ago, Arizona went even further. The Legislature voted to cut all general funding from state parks, several of which closed soon after. But 23 parks that had been slated for closure were saved temporarily after the state transferred ownership to counties, cities or tribal jurisdictions, and philanthropic groups raised money.

Like Arizona, states with dramatic cuts in their parks budgets are looking hard for creative ways to increase funding. Michigan, which ended all general funding for state parks in 2004, is $340 million short on infrastructure repairs to its parks, but the success of a permitting program for admission has sparked optimism among natural resources officials and made Michigan a state that other parks directors are watching.  Oklahoma and Pennsylvania are considering outsourcing park services — a potentially cost-effective decision but one that would be difficult for the majority of state parks across the country that operate on lands states have leased from the federal government.

Even state parks that take steps toward privatization find themselves dependent on state budgets for crucial funding. The Salt Lake Tribune, in its recent series on Utah's parks, reported that This is The Place park, often touted as a privatized success, still relies on tax dollars for about 20 percent of its budget. "Without [state money], we would probably tell the state to take it back," Ellis Ivory, the park's executive director, told the paper.

In California, Goldstein says that several nonprofit organizations have shown interest in running threatened parks. But she adds that it's impossible to say how many parks the pending legislation might save.