What Can Parks Do When Demand Rises as Budgets Decline?

A park in Nashville.

A park in Nashville. iStock.com/traveler1116

Though there may be greater appreciation for the nation’s parks, many are still fighting for funding. Some states are finding solutions.

In the ongoing struggle to preserve or improve the nation’s infrastructure, most of the conversation has been about roads, bridges, water pipes and the like. Parks don’t often make it onto that list, even though they’re more in demand than ever. The parks’ open spaces and recreational opportunities have provided critical and healthy alternatives to shuttered museums, theaters, arenas and other recreational outlets through much of the pandemic.  

More than one-half of the state park systems had annual visitation increases in 2020 from 2019, some at record levels, according to Lewis Ledford, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors. This was true even though the pandemic required that most of the systems close or had restrictions on attendance for weeks or months.  

Similar trends prevailed in city parks. The Trust for Public Land surveyed the park systems in the 100 largest cities, and there was a clear pattern of increased usage. “We’ve heard that many were double or triple their normal attendance rates,” reports Will Klein, the Trust’s project manager for parks research. 

But even as more people have flocked to state and local parks (the national parks, which are often destination sites, have lost attendance), many have been grappling with sometimes extreme budgetary problems. “Officials know people enjoy parks and greenways,” says Monique Horton Odom, parks director in Nashville, Tennessee. “And yet when it comes time for budget reductions, parks departments are on the chopping block. So, there’s clearly a disconnect.”

In the current fiscal year, Nashville’s parks system lost about 41 full-time equivalency positions in its budget. Moreover, despite receiving $23 million to help deal with deferred maintenance that had been accumulating for some time, Odom’s department still calculates that the city’s parks confront roughly $50 million in deferred maintenance on assets like trails, roofing, paving and golf courses.  

In the state parks, “when you’re talking about operational expenses, there’s really no state out there that’s able to cover all of them in the long term,” says Ledford. “And maintenance continues to be a big problem as well. Every state has millions of dollars of backlog in deferred maintenance.” Moreover, it is an even greater challenge to finance capital expenditures and any land acquisition expansion, adds Ledford.

Mississippi’s parks have been among those that have been the most victimized by a shortage of cash. If the current recommended budget for fiscal year 2022, which begins July 1, stands, state park general fund revenues will have been cut by over 60% since 2000 and staffing will have declined by about 70%. For fiscal years 2017 to 2021, general fund contributions to the parks were cut about $2.3 million, reducing their operating budget to a little over $12 million.

As a result, “We try to do more with less, and continue to offer an affordable and enjoyable experience for outdoor recreation for the citizens and visitors to our state,” says Jennifer Head, budget administrator of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “But we aren’t able to provide the amenities that we used to, and we aren’t able to keep up with our maintenance.”

Some in Mississippi have suggested that the state privatize its parks, but the risks inherent in that approach are abundant, and it has failed to be approved so far. As Head warns, “Private companies tend to be for profit so (fees for park attendance and amenities) could rise, out of the control of the state.” 

Of course, there’s a huge variety in the way parks are funded. Only one state park system, New Hampshire’s, relies entirely on funds raised by the parks themselves, largely from admission fees and charges for campsite rentals and lodging. The remainder of the states depend on similar sources of revenue in addition to money from the general fund, which is most vulnerable to cuts in economic downturns. 

Alternatives are emerging, however.

Connecticut, for example, still relies on general fund revenues to some extent, but after years of which it was far short of that necessary for operations, it changed gears in 2018 by instituting its Passport to the Parks Program. Currently, Connecticut residents who register their motor vehicle every year pay a $5 fee that goes to support the state parks. That’s generating about $20 million a year. 

“That was a transformational thing,” says Eric Hammerling executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association. “For a decade up until Passport to the Parks, every year there were painful cuts, but we have largely gotten ourselves out of that mess.” 

Rhode Island has a similar story. After years of total dependency on general funds, a 2018 study requested by then Gov. Gina Raimondo found the state parks had critically low levels of staff, under-performance of day-to-day maintenance and over-reliance on contractors and seasonal employees. 

What’s more, the state’s ability to raise sufficient money from user fees had long been stymied by legislative resistance to raising the money it could charge for park passes for beaches – a major asset of the state parks – to over $30. By contrast, beaches in the state’s municipalities typically charge closer to $120, according to Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

But, as in Connecticut, Rhode Islanders were willing to foot the bill for better parks by overwhelmingly passing a bond issue March 2 that provided some $74 million for the state’s parks and beaches. Of that, $33 million will be used for investments in major capital improvements in the state’s beaches, parks and campgrounds, according to an explanatory document by the Rhode Island DEM.

It appears that the public generally tends to be willing to support parks with dollars. In November, voters in 48 jurisdictions approved ballot measures for additional funding for state parks. In Portland, Oregon, for example, a five-year parks and recreation local property tax levy was passed that will generate $293 million for parks and other natural areas.

If President Biden’s plans for the pandemic come to pass, any number of recreational outlets other than parks will re-open in coming months. Will that mean that the public’s support for these sanctuaries abate? We can only hope not. Parks will remain one of the cheapest shows in town, and – on the whole -- are much healthier places to spend time than sitting in a dark movie theater chunking down a bigger-than-life box of popcorn.

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
Local Districts across Great Lakes Manage Water Quality & Flooding Risks in Cost-effective Co-op
London, ON, Canada
Madison Water Utility replaces 8,000 lead service lines
Madison, WI, USA
Tracking Stormwater Pollutants from Lawns to Lakes Informs Capital Projects & Public Education
St Paul, MN, USA

NEXT STORY: Buttigieg Emphasizes Commitment to Working Directly with Local Governments

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.