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"The Arizona State Parks Board on January 15 voted to keep nine parks open and close
the remaining thirteen State Parks in a phased series of closures starting
February 22, 2010 due to six different State Parks funds being swept of $8.6 million.
In addition,  four parks remain closed due to previous budget reductions.
Parks will be closed in a phased sequence starting on February 22, 2010 . . ."
~ from the Arizona State Parks website in January
Say it ain't so . . .

Unfortunately, it is. And Arizona residents and visitors have been quite vocal about the decision in the public comments pages of the state park website. But what can the state do when it has a multi-BILLION budget deficit, probably the second worst in the entire country??

Although California's deficit is higher at around $20 billion, percentage-wise Arizona is in deeper doo-doo.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park (part of the Maricopa County park system in the Phoenix area)
is still open but many Arizona state parks are in jeopardy of being closed this year.

In this entry I'll talk about the dilemma many local and state park systems face during the current recession as significantly less revenue is coming into their coffers and the costs to maintain their parks and historical sites continue to rise.


It's no secret that our national parks have been under-funded for years; now the problem is "closer to home" and folks will feel the effects more acutely.

It's one thing when a national park two or three hundred miles away has to cut back on its services. It's quite another when your favorite nearby park  -- the one where you and your family and friends love to fish, camp, bike, run, and/or hike on pretty weekends several months of the year -- can't sustain itself and your city/state parks department decides it has to close.

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land;
Feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving waters,
The simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

~August Fruge  

One of the biggest threats to affordable outdoor recreational activities in this country is politicians and government employees who think a good way to balance their budgets is to close public parks and campgrounds that don't generate enough revenue to sustain themselves.

That was seldom if ever the original intention of setting aside lands for public use but it has come to be a reason more recently in some jurisdictions to close them down.

I don't intend to get political, assign blame for the current economic debacle in our country, or debate the reasons why some states are a squintillion dollars in the red (that's even more than a gazillion, my former favorite exaggerative number).

No. My intention is to let readers know the extent of the problem so they can decide for themselves whether to become proactive in an effort to keep as many parks open as possible. There are ways that we as individuals can help and they don't all cost money.

Patagonia Lake State Park is one of the Arizona parks that will probably remain open this year.

I realize it's a tough economic (and inevitably political) decision for the federal government and numerous states and municipalities that have to choose which services they can continue to provide and which must be cut or severely modified. Each person and entity has his/her/its own list of priorities; it's your job to let your elected officials know which services are most important to you.

I also realize that parks are not considered necessities by many people. I happen to be one who believes they ARE necessities, especially in stressful times like these: high unemployment, job insecurity, rampant foreclosures, stalled housing market, stock market vacillations, savings/retirement accounts that haven't recovered from their 2007-9 losses, continued war in the Middle East, terrorism threats that don't abate . . .

Has there ever been a more critical time for people to have affordable, outdoor recreational opportunities for relaxation and quality family (or alone) time?

This whole country needs to go for a long run or walk in the woods . . . if the trails are still open, that is.


You and everyone else in your community -- this problem affects a whole lot more people than hikers, trail runners, fishermen, photographers, birders, wildlife observers, campers, and other outdoor  aficionados who obviously have a vested interest in keeping them open to the public. 

Anglers enjoy fishing in Lake Patagonia. Their revenue and "political" clout are two reasons
why this Arizona state park will remain open this year and some others have been closed.

Park closures also affect more than just our quality of life. Local, state, and national parks can have a significant impact on local and state economies.

  • A study of eighty Texas state parks, for example, revealed the parks were responsible for $793 million in retail sales in 2009, which created 11,928 jobs. That's just one state, albeit a big one.
  • The much smaller Arizona state parks system generates $266 million a year for state and local governments, according to a Northern Arizona University study.
  • A survey recently released by the National Association of State Park Directors (NASPD) reports that collectively America’s state parks have a $20 billion economic impact on local and state economies. The total rises to $32 billion when combined with the impact of our national parks.

That's a lot of money!

Spring color brightens Elm Lake at Brazos Bend State Park in southern Texas. (March, 2010)

Although cutting funding for parks looks like an easy solution to budget problems, closing parks costs communities in several ways with lost revenue. It seems to me to be a short-sighted "solution" that could cost more than it will save.

First, you've got all those park employees who contribute to their local economies. It takes a lot of people to run the parks. Although it costs money to pay their salaries and benefits, multi-tasking park rangers and other employees aren't all that highly paid for what they do. And they give back much of the money they earn -- they purchase homes in the community, buy other goods and services that help keep their neighbors employed, and pay taxes. 

Eliminate their jobs and less money goes back into the community.

Dave, one of our favorite rangers at Brazos Bend, encourages kids to search for tiny pond life
in a pile of swamp grass he got from the lake behind him. Dave is an expert naturalist
who is a "natural" for this job. He has been working at the park for 25 years. (March, 2010)

Then there are the visitors who come to enjoy local, regional, state, and national parks. Not all of them live locally or even in the same state. In fact, depending on the park, many of them come from other countries. They have to eat and stay somewhere when they visit. Although some of them sleep inside parks in campgrounds, cabins, or lodges, many of them stay one or more nights (and eat and shop) in surrounding towns or cities.

Closing the parks that lured them to those areas makes things even more difficult for businesses that depend on tourism and travel. These include small Mom & Pop businesses as well as large corporations like hotel/motel chains, car rental agencies, and restaurants. They're already hurting in this depressed economy as many people are forced to scale down their vacation plans.

Screened cabins for rent at Brazos Bend are always full of visitors on pretty weekends. (March, 2010)

It's ironic: as fewer Americans can afford to fly or cruise to distant destinations, many of them are getting behind the steering wheels of their own vehicles and flocking to local, state, and national parks -- you guessed it, some of the ones in jeopardy of being closed or open on fewer days!

  • Ten million more American and foreign tourists visited our national parks last year than in 2008, a 3.9% increase and the fifth busiest year ever for the National Park system -- which has been open for over a hundred years.
  • For twenty-eight state park systems reporting to the NASPD survey above, all but one (Hawaii) reported an increase in camping. The average increase in campground stays for 2009 over 2008 for the twenty-eight states was 7.38%.
  • In that study, the overall increase in visits for 2009 vs 2008 was 6.94%.
  • Combined with the 276 million annual visitors to national parks, more than one billion visitors a year used this national system of parks in 2009. (I don't think the total includes visits to regional and local parks. It probably includes multiple visits by the same person, however.)

There is so much interesting information in this report on the Edmonton RV Travel Examiner website that I'm copyiing* the entire article on a linked page in this website for details on visitation and economic impact at national parks in general and seven states in particular. (*In case the original web page disappears.)

A busy spring Saturday on the Elm Lake Trail at Brazos Bend SP: must be some alligators
near the trail! (Yep. There were three.)  Kinda reminds me of the backed-up cars
along the roads at Yellowstone NP when a bear, elk, or buffalo is spotted. (March, 2010)

Another irony is that in some cases, it may cost more to close a park and keep it closed than to maintain it!

For example, the same website reports that because of the way the funding is structured at Fort Verde State Park in Arizona, funds in the grants and capitol projects budgets can be used to close the park but not pay for operating expenses to keep it open. It's the operating budget that's short.

There are other ramifications when parks are closed, especially if they are sold to private interests as has been suggested in Arizona and possibly other states. In doing that they could lose forever some of their significant geological, cultural, or historical sites that were set aside for protection and/or public use. In my opinion too many houses and businesses already crowd up next to park boundaries around our country. Imagine if private owners could buy current park lands.

I'm thinking about private mining, energy, and other interests that already threaten to harm some of our most popular national parks like the Smokies and Glacier . . . and the extremely narrow corridor of land along some of the Appalachian Trail.

And what about the wildlife that is currently protected in these parks?

A cute little armadillo with furry ears and a pink nose roots around
for supper at Huntsville SP in Texas.  (February, 2010)

A snowy egret takes flight at Brazos Bend SP,  a game preserve in Texas. (March, 2010)

A "smiling" alligator enjoys a sunny spring day at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend SP, Texas. (March, 2010)

There could be some significant environmental repercussions when parks are closed. What a logistical challenge to staff who have to figure out  how to protect natural and cultural resources while parks are (hopefully temporarily) closed . . . when that staff is eliminated or severely cut.

Recently there was quite a lively debate on the internet ultra list about whether it us OK to continue running and hiking on trails in parks that are closed. Although I'm generally a law-abiding citizen, I have to admit I'd be sorely tempted to continue to use my favorite trails if a park I used frequently was shuttered.

I'm not saying I'd do it, just that I'd be tempted! What a waste of public land.

Part 2:  Which parks are in trouble? How are states coping?

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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© 2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil