North Carolina's state parks are limping into a new budget year with a 25 percent cut from the legislature, growing hordes of visitors and a sense that things could be worse.
As states struggle with deficits, the nation's parks are under siege. California will close 70 of its 278 parks. Washington state withdrew all its state support. Ohio plans to allow oil and gas drilling in its parks.
No North Carolina parks or recreation areas are expected to close. But visitors will pay more to camp, swim or picnic, because of fee increases. They'll find fewer rangers and more peeling paint.
"You can only nail, hammer and paint so much," said Shederick Mole, superintendent of Jordan Lake State Recreation Area in Chatham County.
The park system also will lose millions from the trust fund that has helped it grow by about 5,000 acres a year since 1996. The fund is still paying off two landmark additions, the Chimney Rock and Grandfather Mountain tourist attractions. Little will be left this year.
As the state park budget is reduced over the next few years, less money will be available for parks to renovate and remodel existing buildings..
"Every park is trying to put their bid in the same pot," Mole said.
Legislators diverted $8.4 million from the trust, which gets income from real estate excise taxes, to help balance the state budget. They also took an additional $6 million for park operations.
The trust fund avoided an even bigger blow: a bill that would have cut revenue by half.
"We considered that a bigger threat than the budget because that would have shut down state parks," said David Pearson, a Swansboro real estate broker who leads Friends of State Parks. The group advocates and provides volunteers for parks.
But no entrance fees
Despite the grim financial climate, park officials still show little appetite for a dollar stream that's long been taboo - entrance fees. North Carolina is one of only nine states that don't charge them for state parks, though the state has an admission fee per vehicle at state recreation areas, Mole said. Examples of state recreation areas are Jordan Lake and Kerr Lake in Vance County.
A recent study from N.C. State University found that the cost of installing and staffing fee stations would offset the revenue from a fee. The study also predicted that visits would fall, hurting the parks' $400 million annual contribution to local economies.
The state savors its history of free parks. Many were created with grassroots support when development, logging or mining threatened beloved natural places. Most of their visitors live no more than an hour or two away.
"There's strong sentiment in North Carolina that people want their parks open," said state parks director Lewis Ledford.
Stephen Strickland, a regular visitor at Crowders Mountain State Park west of Gastonia, loves his local green space.
"Compared to most, this one is a great park," said Strickland, taking a rest while trail-running with two buddies on a muggy morning. "You never see any trash or anything. Anytime even a branch falls across a trail, it's picked up ASAP."
Still, said his friend Adam Wilson, "I'd rather see them cut some of the park's budget than my wife's teaching job."
What's it worth?
Many states think parks should be as free as libraries, said Rich Dolesh, policy chief at the National Recreation and Park Association. Others say fees reinforce the notion that parks are worth paying for.
"It is a watershed moment for the state parks," Dolesh said of the recent budget battles. "The deeper question is, does the state have a long-term, sustainable funding mechanism for the parks? It can't be a quick fix."
Jordan Lake State Recreation Area has had to reduce its seasonal employees for the summer from 90 in past years to about 35 this summer. Jim Trostle said he and other park rangers have had to perform more general maintenance duties.
Mole, the superintendent, said landscaping is being done less often and buildings are cleaned less.
"A park ranger needs to come by more often," said Tammy Hawkins, who was visiting Jordan Lake on Tuesday. She said she is the recreation area for hours at a time every week and sometimes doesn't see a ranger.
Always on a shoestring
Despite their wealth of 215,000 acres and 14 million visitors last year, North Carolina parks have rarely been cash-rich.
North Carolina's spending on park operations ranked third-lowest in the nation as a share of the total state budget in 2009-10, according to data from the National Association of State Park Directors.
This year's budget cuts followed appropriations that have fallen 15 percent over the past three years. But the trust fund, which pays for land acquisition, capital projects, major maintenance expenses and local grants, had never before been tapped for operations.
Ledford, the parks chief, acknowledges that the cuts will be painful. But he calls them only a pause in the system's expansion, noting that private donors and volunteers have helped fuel past growth.
"We continue to look at properties to expand the park system," he said. "There will be a point in the future when we look back at all that conserved land ... and be glad that we have that resource for future generations."
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