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Posted: Tuesday, Jul. 05, 2011

N.C. state parks are still open, still free, despite budget cuts

By Bruce Henderson
Published in: Travel

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North Carolina's state parks limp this week 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 state support. Ohio plans to allow oil and gas drilling in its parks.

No N.C. parks are expected to close. But visitors will pay more to camp, swim or picnic, due to fee hikes last year. They'll find fewer rangers and more peeling paint.

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.

Legislators diverted $8.4 million from the trust, which gets income from real estate excise taxes, to help balance the state budget. They took an additional $6 million for park operations, effectively lowering the appropriations cut to 5.6 percent.

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.

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.

A recent study from N.C. State University found that the cost of installing and staffing fee stations would offset the revenue. The study 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 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."

Many states feel that 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 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."

Just across the state line, South Carolina's parks run on a different business model.

Many have rental cabins and two have golf courses. Most charge entrance fees. Parks are part of the state tourism department - North Carolina's are in the environmental agency - and rely heavily on marketing. The system also has increased its dependence on fees, which now generate nearly 80 percent of its operating budget, compared to about 20 percent in North Carolina.

The shift "has allowed us to focus on what customers want," said S.C. Parks Director Phil Gaines. "The people who use the parks are literally paying for their parks."

Land rich, cash poor

Despite their wealth of 215,000 acres and 14 million visitors last year, N.C. 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 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."

For now, park staff will have to cope with new limits.

At South Mountains State Park, northwest of Charlotte, trust fund money might not be there to fix a $6,000 plumbing leak, as it did this year. Even before this year's cuts, the park's budget had dropped 31 percent in three years.

At Lake James State Park, nestled in the foothills, rangers will welcome hikers and swimmers to a 3,000-acre addition - and struggle to manage the fivefold expansion with only one new staff member.

Morrow Mountain State Park, east of Charlotte, sports a new, trust fund-financed boathouse and renovated pool. But many of the park's stonework structures date to the Depression, and upkeep is unrelenting in the face of 400,000 visitors a year.

"We're able to keep the park open and running, but it's hard to go above and beyond what's immediately essential," said Superintendent Jason Gwinn. "Over time it will get worse."

Some visitors notice the park's balancing act. Most, Gwinn said, seem only glad the park is still open, and still free.

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