Park Visitation Up but Finances Weak Across US

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Closed parks, fewer services and more volunteer help are some of the ways states are coping with steep budget cuts that could limit vacations and long summer weekends for campers and outdoor lovers seeking recreation closer to home. Nationally Park Service budgets have also been hit, but the changes shouldn’t be as noticeable.

While park finances are weak, visitation is strong.

“It seems even $4 a gallon gas isn’t hurting but may even be an impetus to get people to think about the close-to-home state park vacation,” said Joe Elton, president of the National Association of State Park Directors and director of Virginia’s state park system. “I’m expecting Memorial Day weekend is going to be huge for us.”

State parks across the country are looking at serious cuts in services, fee increases or even closures as lawmakers look for ways to deal with their budget crises. The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department closed seven state parks. In California, a lack of funding has threatened to force the shutdown of 70 state parks.

Other states have been creative in their efforts to avoid reducing services.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission late last year refused state parks administrator Chas Van Genderen’s request to raise fees at some state parks after he said his division was in a “terrible fiscal situation.”

“In these tough economic times, people don’t stop using their parks,” Van Genderen said recently. “We’re going to be looking at any number of alternatives throughout the park system.”

That means using more volunteers in parks such as Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park near Bozeman and Pictograph Cave State Park near Billings, he said. Or exploring deals in which municipalities or counties take over the management or even ownership of some parks.

Montana starts taking online campground reservations this weekend, making it one of the last states in the nation to implement such a system.

“That was one of our responses to the tight economy,” Van Genderen said.

No matter how creative or austere the parks become, it will be difficult for the recreation areas to be completely self-sufficient, and state lawmakers need to recognize their obligation to keep up the nation’s wild places, Elton said.

“I don’t think it’s as appreciated as much as it should be that this is a birthright in America. We’ve preserved a good chunk of our wilderness and made it enjoyable to all our citizens,” he said. “I think the outlook is still dire in some places. (But) there is a growing recognition that we probably ought to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

The National Park Service received about $11 million in operational cuts this year and nearly $50 million less in its construction budget, said John Garder of the non-governmental National Parks Conservation Association.

Those cuts aren’t large, but they come on top of a $600 million annual operations shortfall by the National Park Service and is exacerbated by higher fixed costs such as fuel, he said.

“Just as an American family has to absorb increased costs, that’s something the Park Service has to deal with,” Garder said.

Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson said park superintendents knew their budgets would be lean this year and they made adjustments early. So visitors shouldn’t see any fewer seasonal employees, delayed campground openings or reduced visitor center hours as a result of the cuts, he said.

“Visitor services will be the same this summer as in 2010,” Olson said.

Yellowstone National Park spokesman Al Nash said the park will have between 700 and 800 staff this summer, about the same as last year. A $5 million construction project to stabilize the Old Faithful visitors center to protect against a big earthquake is on track to begin next year, he said.

To the north, Glacier National Park’s budget this year has been reduced about 2 percent compared to last year, said spokeswoman Ellen Blickhan. But there won’t be any obvious changes to visitors, she said.

“We kind of planned for that, so it wasn’t a complete shock we had a 2 percent budget decrease,” Blickhan said.

Overall, the National Park Service’s budget has been cut by about $130 million compared with last year. But budget writers are talking about even deeper cuts in 2012 — as much as 7 percent.

“I would be surprised if a visitor went to any national park this weekend and experienced any substantial reduction to the services they experienced last year,” Garder said. “But we’re concerned about additional cuts, which would be very challenging for the National Park Service to absorb.”

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