N.C. parks cope with lean times

As campers, boaters and hikers fan out across the state this weekend to kick off summer, the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation has fewer ways to serve them.

Litter won't always be picked up as quickly. Maintenance projects are being deferred, and fewer seasonal workers are being hired.

Visitors to Lake Norman State Park in Iredell County, for example, won't be able to rent canoes or paddle boats for another month due to the lack of summer staff.

As legislators haggle over cuts to education and Medicaid to close an $800 million shortfall, state parks might seem like an afterthought.

But outdoors enthusiasts made a record 14.2 million visits to state parks in 2009, a 13 percent increase over 2008. If the weather holds, park officials expect similar crowds in 2010. In welcoming them, the park system is stretching every dollar.

The system, which includes 34 state parks, four state recreation areas and a series of natural areas, usually hires about 700 seasonal employees to help with routine summer tasks. This year, there will be fewer than 400. And, among full-time staff there are nearly 70 vacancies.

Like all state agencies, the parks system has to make choices during tough economic times, state parks director Lewis Ledford said.

"You try to be as lean and as efficient as you can," Ledford said.

People are beginning to notice. Last year, when Mooresville resident John Kertesz and his wife went camping at Lake Norman, they found the bathrooms in terrible shape.

"The facilities were pretty atrocious and disgusting," he said. "The showers didn't have warm water. It was freezing."

Matthew Clay of Garner had to depend on ingenuity while camping at Lake Jordan this month. The fire ring and grate at his family's campsite was worn, rusted and bent. Clay, 36, jammed a large stone beneath the grate to prop it up so he could cook hamburgers and hot dogs for his boys.

"This is what you see when the state has problems with the budget," he said. "We'll make it work."

State parks officials don't want to be seen as complainers. They could use more money, just as every agency could.

As parks spokesman Charlie Peek put it, "We're all in the same canoe."

Added Jonathan Griffith, superintendent of South Mountain State Park in Burke County: "We all have to make those sacrifices. North Carolina state parks have fared very well, much better than other states."

But as the parks become more popular, more visitors are bound to be disappointed.

'A difficult balance'

North Carolina is not the only place where state parks have money problems. New York's budget crisis forced the temporary closure of 41 state parks. Arizona cut its park budget 80 percent, and turned over some parks to local governments. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has added the country's state parks to its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

There have been no proposals to close N.C. parks, said Ledford, the parks director.

The N.C. parks operated on $33.2 million during the 2008-09 budget year, down more than $5 million over the previous year. Spending in the current year, which ends on June 30, will be in the same range, Ledford said.

The system receives money from three main sources: fees it collects for camping and other activities, money from the legislature, and contributions from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. The trust receives its money from a deed-transfer tax of $2 per $1,000 in value, which is collected on real estate transactions.

So when the state's real estate market is hopping, so is the amount of money in the trust fund. In 2007, the system received $36.5 million from the trust, which can be used only for capital improvements or to buy land. In 2009, the system received $15.5 million.

When times were good, the system used that money to add parkland and make major improvements, such as visitors centers, to existing parks. When times are lean, there are fewer people to help staff those new acres and new buildings.

"Trying to grow at the same time we're paring back - it's a difficult balance," Ledford said.

The state has been aggressive in recent years in bringing land into the park system, with six new state parks authorized since 2003. Grandfather Mountain and Chimney Rock state parks, two of the state's best-known natural attractions, are both new since 2005.

The state purchased Grandfather Mountain for $12 million, split equally between the Parks and Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust Funds. Both funds receive their money from the deed-transfer tax.

As parkland increased, so did visitors. Ledford credits several factors for the higher attendance, including the poor economy, which has led more families to stick closer to home for vacations. Improved park facilities and a growing population have also brought more visitors, he said.

Despite the current budget pains, Ledford doesn't regret the park's land purchases. When iconic tracts such as Grandfather Mountain become available, he said, the state needs to find a way to bring them into the fold.

He pointed to an economic impact study of 14 parks from 2008 that concluded each non-local park visitor spent $23.56 daily, for such things as campground fees, gasoline and lunches outside the park.

North Carolina trails nearly all other states in park spending per resident. According to the National Association of State Park Directors, North Carolina spent $4.18 per person on parks in 2008, ranking 45th nationally. Delaware was No. 1, spending $26.50 per person; Texas was last, at $3.58.

Putting repairs on hold

Every year, the superintendent of each park creates a list of maintenance projects and asks for money.

For the coming budget year, 149 projects were approved for $1.2 million. The parks asked for 328 projects at $3.2 million.

So that means William B. Umstead State Park in Wake County didn't receive the $45,000 it needs to fix damaged siding and beams at a 60-year-old mess hall.

At Carolina Beach State Park near Wilmington, the park usually welcomes seven seasonal workers each summer. This year it has three, park superintendent Terri Taylor said.

"Anything that we desperately need to get done is getting done," Taylor said. She asked for $31,000 to paint the outside of nine park buildings. She didn't get it.

Griffith, the South Mountain superintendent, says parks must adjust.

"We have to be more creative about making the repairs," he said.

(Raleigh) News & Observer staff writer Lisa Du contributed.