Policy Documents

State Parks Coming Under Greater Budget Scrutiny

D. Brady Nelson –
July 12, 2011

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has announced plans to permanently close 70 of the state’s 278 parks, in an effort to help the state rein in its enormous budget deficit. The park closures will allow the state government to save $11 million in fiscal year 2011-12 and $22 million in FY 2012-13.

“We regret closing any park,” Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks, said in a May 13 press release, “but with the proposed budget reductions over the next two years, we can no longer afford to operate all parks within the system.”

“These cuts are unfortunate, but the state’s current budget crisis demands that tough decisions be made,” Resources Secretary John Laird in the May 13 press release.

California officials preserved the most popular state parks. Although a quarter of the state’s parks will be closed, the remaining 75 percent are responsible for 92 percent of total state park attendance.

Ohio Approves Energy Production
California is not the only state looking at its state parks as it attempts to reduce a large budget deficit. Many states are cutting park staff, raising entrance fees, and putting off scheduled maintenance and repairs.

Ohio is poised to turn its state parks into a source of income rather than a financial drain. In June the legislature approved legislation to allow oil and natural gas production in state parks. A spokesman for Gov. John Kasich (R) said he will sign the bill into law.

Even with stringent government oversight, oil and natural gas production on state lands in Ohio is expected to add up to $9 million in revenue that will allow state parks to remain open.

Given the economic realities of operating and maintaining dozens of state parks, the Ohio plan is gathering widespread support.

“As Ohio faces at least an $8 billion deficit, it cannot ignore the current deposits of oil and gas in state parks and what could turn out to be millions of dollars in natural gas from the Marcellus Shale,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer observed in a house editorial.

“If some of the revenue from oil and gas leasing can be put into a dedicated account to pay for state park maintenance, it would be a net gain for Ohio’s 74 state parks,” the Plain Dealer explained.

“It’s not a new idea. Last year, Michigan put $178 million from gas and oil leasing in state parks into a parks trust fund. Pennsylvania collected $128 million by leasing drilling rights in its forests,” the editorial added.

Wasteful Mismanagement
David Theroux, president of the California-based Independent Institute, says there is plenty of fat from in state parks programs for governments to cut.

“Most lands under state park jurisdiction either are just plain wasteful or are being environmentally mismanaged and even ruined by government agencies,” said Theroux. “Many lands are further kept from any public use at all in a form of gentrified holding for political elites.”

Trent England, vice president of the Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington, agrees. “State parks are a luxury and not a necessity. It’s no surprise that in economic straits, parks—or at least free access to parks—get heaved over the side,” he said.

“State governments tend to be terrible stewards of public lands, and like governments at all levels they mismanage the resources they have,” said Steven Greenhut, director of the journalism center at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute. “Typically, they overspend their budgets and then complain that they need tax hikes to do their jobs.

“California parks officials have had skewed priorities for years now, and I have little hope that giving them more money will fix anything,” Greenhut added. “One example—they are busy using state funds to buy conservation easements to ‘protect’ forests in the North Coast even though there is no threat of development in those remote areas. They are doing this even as the state faces a more than $1 billion backlog in maintenance on existing lands.”

Privatization Option
“State parks should for the most part be privatized,” said Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. “At the very least, those that use parks—campers, hikers, fishermen, what have you—should pay for their upkeep. Those that don't, shouldn't. State ownership is simply a guise for taxpayer-financed subsidies for a certain form of recreation. Those subsidies should be eliminated.”
Gregory Bresiger, contributing writer for the Ludwig von Mises Institute, says privatization can help the environment. 

“Manhattan’s Bryant Park had its care, management, and maintenance taken away from the City Parks Department and handed over to a nonprofit corporation—with great reluctance and only because the park was in a disastrous state. The joke in the 1970s was the park was so dangerous that the police only went into the park to collect the dead bodies,” said Bresiger. “Today the park is a jewel. Every time I go there—and I don't go there often because I live in Queens and the park is in Manhattan—I see that they have added something new, such as an outdoor library or another restaurant or another merry-go-round.

“It's amazing what they have done in a little park,” he added. “Let a 1,000 Bryant Parks bloom!”

D. Brady Nelson (d.brady.nelson@mac.com) is a Milwaukee-based economist.