As Memorial Day vacationers head out to national and state parks across the country this weekend, looking for respite from urban woes, many will see signs of parks feeling economic stress.
In California, Governor Jerry Brown’s $22 million budget cut will close 70 of the state’s 278 state parks including beaches. In Colorado, the legislature has completely eliminated general tax funding for the state parks. And in Georgia, the state park’s allocation shrank by 40 percent.
The first changes people are going to see are reduced park hours, fewer rangers available for guidance and maintenance, not to mention closed facilities such as toilets and museum exhibits, says Philip McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors.
“You’re probably going to see more camp areas using pack-it-in, pack-it-out,” he says, meaning there will be no garbage collection inside the parks.
Campgrounds will reduce their open days and there will be less seasonal staff, he says, adding, “With the national health and obesity problem the country is facing, there couldn’t be a worse time to pick on one of the cheapest and easiest ways for Americans to get out and relieve their stress and get some exercise.”
Moves to encourage private partnership that would broaden the revenue base for the park system are underway, including a recent bill working its way through the legislature to speed up the paperwork for such deals.
But, she notes, it’s unclear how much private money can do. Much is uncertain about the proposed closures, she says, adding, “This is new to everyone, so it’s not clear how this will actually unfold on the ground.”
Some of the impact of budget cuts will be less immediately visible, points out John Garder of the National Parks Conservation Association, a private advocacy group. Even before recent budget cutting, he points out, national parks had nearly $11 billion in deferred maintenance.
“That means there is land acquisition that won’t happen from willing sellers who will sell to developers instead,” he says, which increases the likelihood of the growth of incompatible land development next to national parks.
Another sign of budget cutting in the parks is the explosion of volunteers, doing everything from taking out trash to trail maintenance and running gift shops.
The all-volunteer, “Friends of the Georgia State Parks,” has doubled over the past two years to a force of between four and five thousand, says volunteer Damon Kirkpatrick.
“Everyone likes to talk about how bad the cuts have been, but we like to talk about what we can do about it,” he says. This weekend, he plans to head out to a state park to prepare for a big volunteer clean-up event.
“Sometimes politicians say this is a choice between ambulances and green space, but they don’t realize just how much money parks bring into an area,” he points out. “It can run into millions of dollars as tourists buy gasoline at local stations, stay in hotels, and shop.”
Parks have become a political football, agrees Graham Chisholm, executive director of Audubon California. They are a vital part of the national soul, he says, adding they also provide unbeatable value for the money.
“For the price of a blockbuster movie excursion with your family,” he says, “you can spend an entire weekend at a park.”