The threat of park closures is part of the state budget crunch package. Just over one-third (36 percent) of the average state park system is funded by state general funds, a slightly larger share (39 percent) is park generated, and the remainder is often from special funds dedicated for park use (link to chart). Because park funding is typically a lower priority than many other state funded projects, such as schools, hospitals, and social services, when state budgets are tight, park budgets are on the chopping block.
The 2007-08 financial crisis brought many states to their knees as tax revenues declined and state welfare expenditures increased. The budget shortfalls resulted in the threat of park closures in many states including Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, New York, Oklahoma, and Washington. Some of the parks in these systems have been temporarily closed and services decreased in others.
Closures can temporarily help state agencies address budget shortfalls. But the number of parks threatened greatly exceeds the number of parks actually closed. Often, as recently occurred in Florida, the threat itself is sufficient to motivate politicians and bureaucrats to find the funds necessary to continue park operations. Known as the Washington Monument strategy, the threat of closing a popular park unit can arouse enough constituent uproar to cause politicians to restore, and sometimes even increase, park appropriations.
In California, park closure threats were declared in 2005, 2009, 2010, and now again in 2011. According to Roy Stearns, California State Parks Deputy Director, a California park has never been closed for “budget reduction reasons.” In 2005, park fees were raised to prevent closure. For the 48 parks threatened in 2009 and 200 in 2010, funds were restored and some services reduced. The chopping block currently has 70 parks slated for closure. The likelihood of closing these parks is slim but it has garnered lots of attention.
Managing parks according to the waxing and waning of state budgets and political whim is reactionary. It does not provide good stewardship to help maintain the areas for their unique features and the public enjoyment. It is time for a new model to fund state parks.