State Park Agencies

Table of Contents

The Average State Park Agency

The average state park agency manages 232,000 acres of land and serves more than 14.5 million visitors each year. It collects more than $10 million in annual revenue--mostly from entrance fees, campgrounds, and other overnight lodgings--but it probably has little control over that revenue unless the legislature decides to appropriate it back to the agency.

The average agency's budget is nearly $30 million per year, more than half of which comes from general funds or other state tax dollars and just over a third of which comes from its own revenues. By comparison, the National Park Service covers less than 6 percent of its budget out of revenues.

Growth of State Park Systems

           				Growth	NPS	NPS
           	1955	1975	1993	Rate	1993	Growth
Acres      	5.1	9.8	11.6	2.2%	80.3	3.2%
Visitors   	183.2	565.7	725.5	3.7%	269.6	4.2%
Budgets    	$269.6	$1,688.2	$1,475.8	4.6%	$1,501.3	6.4%
User Fees  	39.6	143.8	504.6	6.9%	94.3	5.0%
Fee/Visitor	22cents	25cents	70cents	3.1%	35cents	2.0%
Acres, visitors, budgets, and user fees in millions; dollars adjusted for inflation to 1993. Source: National Association of State Park Directors; National Park Service.

The above table shows that state park systems have grown rapidly over the last two decades. Yet the National Park System has tended to grow faster. Between 1955 and 1975, state park acreages were growing far faster than national parks. But state park growth slowed after 1975, while the Alaska parks more than tripled the size of the National Park System.

While the national parks have far more acres, the state parks report far more visitors and collect far more user fees. Yet their budgets have lagged. In 1955, state park budgets were nearly double those of the national parks; by 1975 they were still more than 50 percent greater. But by 1993 state park budgets had actually declined, while national park funding had grown by a third.

Like most agencies dependent on general funds, parks departments are feeling pinched by state budget crunches. The table suggests that budget shortages may be nearly two decades old. In response, state parks have dramatically increased user fees, which have grown from less than 9 percent of state park budgets in 1975 to more than 34 percent today.

History of the State Parks

Park historian and promoter Freeman Tilden begins his classic book, The State Parks: Their Meaning in American Life , with a 1921 conference on state parks called by National Park Service director Stephen Mather. But the history of state parks begins long before that.

Some trace state parks to 1641, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony set aside 90,000 acres of lakes and ponds for hunting and fishing. But these were not parks so much as withdrawals from public entry. Some still survive as public lands, mostly in Maine, which was originally a part of Massachusetts.

Another obvious early park is Yosemite, which Congress set aside as a state park in 1864. California accepted it as a park in 1866, but returned it to the federal government in 1906. In the other direction, Congress created Mackinac National Park in 1875, but gave it to Michigan to be a state park in 1895.

The first state park that was created by a state and that still exists today is Niagara Falls, reserved by New York in 1885. That same year the New York legislature created Adirondack State Park, which conservationists had promoted since 1872.

In 1891, Minnesota created Itasca State Park, while two years later New Jersey joined New York in starting the Palisades Interstate Park. California's park system began in 1901 with the Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and in 1900 the progressive state of Wisconsin was the first to create a state park agency.

The fledgling parks movement was still tiny when Mather called (and, typically for Mather, helped finance) his conference in 1921. Only nineteen states had parks, and of these seven--including California and New Jersey--still had only one. Many of the states that had the largest park systems--such as Connecticut, North Dakota, and Ohio--weren't exactly known for their scenic wonders.

So Mather's meeting provided an important catalyst for the state parks movement. Mather was flushed with the success of fathering the National Park Service, but pressed with demands for new national parks in areas that he thought worth preserving but considered less than national significance. Rather than "thin the blood" of the National Park System by accepting these areas, he decided to promote state parks.

The 200 people representing 28 states--a third of which had no state parks--who attended the 1921 meeting resolved to build and expand the park systems in their states; and for the most part they succeeded. They also created an organization called the National Conference on State Parks, which sent people across the country promoting the state park ideal. By 1940, 45 states had parks and 40 had agencies. Not counting Alaska, the last states to designate parks were Arizona in 1958 and Colorado in 1959.

The National Conference also gave advice on how parks should be managed. Among other things, it suggested that park agencies should be included with forest and fish & wildlife agencies in a single department of conservation. With such allies, the group argued, park advocates would have a better chance of gaining the funding needed to buy more parklands.

One state that didn't heed this advice was Oregon, whose legislature had authorized the purchase of parks with highway (gas tax and vehicle registration) funds. Robert Sawyer, a strong park advocate who was appointed to the Oregon Highway Commission in 1927, believed that Oregon parks were better off with the secure funding they had. In his first eighteen months on the commission, Sawyer more than quadrupled the size of Oregon's park system.

Yet in the long run, Sawyer may have been wrong. In 1930, the state governor replaced Sawyer with someone far less enthused about parks. While Oregonians are proud of their park system today, just 0.15 percent of the state is in state parks--well under the national average of 0.51 percent.

On average, park agencies that are combined in one department with forest agencies--with or without wildlife--have better than 50 percent more of their state's area in parks than agencies that are alone or combined with wildlife. Measured in terms of the share of state land area in parks, seven of the top eight states combine their park agencies with forestry; the bottom seven states have isolated park agencies or (in two cases) park agencies combined with wildlife.

This suggests that aligning parks with another conservation cause--especially forestry--gives them more clout; or at least it did so in the years when most state parks were acquired. The combination with wildlife may not have been as successful because wildlife agencies are less interested in acquiring land than in selling licenses and enforcing game laws.

Nevertheless, in 1928 the Oregon parks division had a secure source of funding and, in any case, land was cheap. By the mid-1950s, the state had secured, among other things, the vast majority of acres between highway 101 and the ocean. When southwest Oregon realtors complained that this would limit their business in the future, the director of the highway department simply told them to "face it, southwest Oregon is going to be the wilderness corner of the state."

Most of the early parks in Oregon and elsewhere were donated to the states or were purchased by the park agencies at low prices. In Michigan, 59 of the state's first 64 parks were acquired by donations. Donations also figured largely in many other state parks, including the California redwood state parks. Park acquisition became especially easy during the 1930s, when private landowners gave up lots of land for back taxes.

Even in 1928 some park managers--including representatives of the National Conference on State Parks--worried that park acquisition should have a broader base of funding than donations. "In a way, this has hindered the establishment of recreation as a definitely recognized function of state government," said a National Conference staff member. Freeman Tilden, writing in 1962, agreed: "The creation of a state park system is more soundly grounded on what the people of the grass roots have demanded and got through the use of their own moneys, which therefore they will the more zealously guard."

Once states began acquiring parks, the next question was what to do with them. Some states, particularly in the Midwest and Southeast. built cabins and lodges for overnight accomodations. Some states in the West concentrated instead on acquiring scenic areas and leaving them undeveloped. This is one more manifestation of the traditional conflict between "conservationists" and "preservationists."

This conflict became especially apparent during the Depression, when the Civilian Conservation Corps built trails, roads, cabins, lodges, and other improvements in many state parks. As in the National Parks, such construction provoked objections from the preservationists, who accused the CCC of "annihilating wilderness."

Preservation-oriented state park managers welcomed the CCC when they could use it for maintenance, fire protection, and similarly benign operations, but opposed what one state manager called "gingerbread." However, the government planners running the CCC favored major developments over mere maintenance. To get around this, the gingerbread opponent applied for the CCC's help on a park development--then put the crews to work on cleanup instead. (Today, of course, even most preservationists consider the CCC developments "quaint" and "historic.")

Land prices increased so much after 1950 that park expansion out of donations slowed. In 1960 a few states started raising funds for park acquisition by selling bonds that would be repaid over many years by state taxpayers. By 1995, slightly more than half the states have used this method of fundraising. In some instances, the states sold "revenue bonds," meaning they would be repaid by park user fees, to raise money for campgrounds and other park development.

In 1965, Congress created the Land & Water Conservation Fund to buy land for recreation purposes. About half of all LWCF money has been granted by the Park Service to states for park acquisition, adding nearly 3 million acres to state park systems since the fund was created.

Between bonds and federal funds, the lower 48 states have more than tripled the number of acres of parks since 1955. When Alaska, which added more than 2 million acres of formerly federal land after 1980, is counted, the number has quadrupled.

Many state park budgets did well during the 1970s, when inflation filled state coffers with income taxes from "bracket creep" (the process that put people in higher tax brackets as inflation increased their nominal pay even if their real pay remained constant). But this contributed to voter backlashes against government spending, leading to the state budget pinches of the 1980s and 1990s.

Indirectly, the federal government was the main source of state budgetary woes. Congressional spending sprees angered voters, who had little control over federal budgeting. They took their anger out on state and local governments, turning down school levies and imposing tax limitations on the states.

In a different way, Oregon's state park system was a direct casualty of federal spending. As previously noted, Oregon's parks enjoyed a share of state gas taxes. Like other states, the Oregon Transportation Department also took full advantage of the 90 percent funding of Interstate highways offered by the federal government. But such funding only applied to construction, leaving the state with a huge maintenance bill.

To help pay that bill, the state detatched parks from transportation--and from the gas tax funds that paid well over half of all park expenses. The legislature promised to make up the difference out of general funds, but a voter-imposed property tax limit on school districts forced the legislature to cut park budgets to help pay for schools. Once paying a third of the parks budget, the general fund now covers less than a tenth. As a result, the park system is raising user fees to market rates and hoping those fees will cover nearly half of all park operating and improvement costs.

Richard Lieber, the father of the Indiana State Park system and state park proselytizer for the National Conference on State Parks, believed that state parks ought to support themselves out of user fees. When he was in charge, Indiana's parks mostly paid their way out of a 10cents per person admission fee (about $1 per person in today's dollars).

But after World War II, nearly all state park managers--including those in Indiana--heartily subscribed to the notion that state taxpayers ought to pay most of the costs of park operations. Only in New Hampshire did legislatures tend to resist paying park costs out of some tax fund or another. Even there, the parks relied heavily upon state general funds in the 1970s and '80s.

Present-Day Funding of State Parks

State parks are more popular than ever, and are probably used by a greater share of the public than either state forests or fish & wildlife resources. Yet park funding tends to be far less secure than funding for either the forests or fish & wildlife.

Today, the average state park system gets a third of its funds from user fees, 40 percent from state general funds, 10 percent from other state receipts dedicated to the parks, 10 percent from bonds, 1 percent from federal grants, and 4 percent from "other" (including local grants and donations). The 40 percent share from general funds has fallen from a typical level of about two-thirds a few years ago.

The New Hampshire and Vermont legislatures have cut general funding for parks to zero. In 1991, as related by former New Hampshire state park director Wilbur LaPage (page 29), that state's legislature insisted that parks be self sufficient as they had been a number of years before. Today they are. So, since 1993, are the parks in Vermont.

But few park managers are keen on the idea of funding themselves entirely out of their own income. They tend to agree with Freeman Tilden, who wrote that "I cannot conceive that state parks, viewed as whole systems, could ever pay their own way; or that they should be expected to do so."

A 1985 survey of state park directors conducted by the Conservation Foundation found that the most important issue for those directors was that the "state legislature needs to provide more funds for state parks"--with 38 of 50 directors rating this "extremely" or "very" important. Asked what was the single most important issue for their park system, at least 36 directors raised funding concerns, while only a three named ecological or environmental problems.

Despite a belief that parks ought to be funded out of tax dollars, when pressed for funds state managers have proven more willing--or able--to increase user fees than federal managers. In the same survey, 32 directors stated that they had "significantly increased user fees" in recent years. But, similar to the national parks, state managers often run into the obstacle that fees are either set by the legislature or may be legislatively vetoed if the public protests.

Even when fees are increased, there is little guarantee that the managers who collect them will ever see them, since only eleven states automatically turn park revenues back to park managers. "Whenever we speak of retaining revenues," a New Jersey park official told Different Drummer, "there is the possibility of correspondingly reducing our appropriation by the same amount."

Several states suffered major protests when they raised user fees. Campground fee increases in California a few years ago led opponents to start an initiative petition to forbid such increases. The group failed to collect enough signatures, but they made park managers nervous for a time. Recent protests in other states, ranging from Arkansas to Washington, convinced managers to roll back price increases.

Such opposition may come from a minority of users. The Delaware Parks Division surveyed park visitors and found that 88 percent were comfortable with existing fees and that around half were willing to pay more.

A 1995 poll by the National Parks and Conservation Association found that 80 percent of Americans would be willing to pay $6 per person per day to visit national parks--if they knew that all of their fees would go to the parks they visited. Support fell to 20 percent if only half went to the parks. While this poll was done for national parks, similar results would probably be found for state parks in many regions of the country.

Neighbors Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska have had very different experiences with user fees. Iowa parks imposed a $2 entrance fee in 1987, which the legislature vetoed after 1989. The legislature promised to make up the difference, a promise that was quickly forgotten. Kansas parks aren't allowed to keep their fees without legislative appropriations, so they don't bother to charge an entrance fee.

In Nebraska, however, entrance fees have been very successful. Nebraska parks collect more than three times as many dollars in user fees than parks in either Iowa or Kansas, and in 1994 user fees actually exceeded park operating costs. The difference is simple: All Nebraska park user fees are retained in a trust fund for Nebraska parks, so park managers have a clear incentive to collect such fees.

Several state park systems other than Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Vermont already generate a high percentage of their budgets from user fees and could easily become self supporting if their legislatures so desired. Colorado parks, for example, collected enough user fees in 1992 to cover 128 percent of their operating costs or 97 percent of their operating plus capital costs. But the Colorado legislature won't let park managers spend the money they collect without going through the appropriations process, which helps guarantee that managers won't view receipts as related to expenses.

Alabama parks get only 2 percent of their funding from state general funds and another 13 percent from cigarette taxes. The rest is funded out of user fees. Other states that regularly get half or more of their operating costs out of user fees include Arkansas, California, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Massachusetts would have been on this list, but its normally fiscally conservative governor, William Weld, recently ended user fees at some parks and cut other fees by 50 to 60 percent. As a result, the share of park costs funded by user fees fell from 65 percent in 1992 to less than 20 percent in 1994. Park managers didn't mind because the legislature had simply reduced their general funds by the amounts they collected in fees--just as Congress has done on the national parks since 1987.

As previously noted, only eleven state park agencies are allowed to keep some or all of the user fees they collect without going through legislative appropriations. Six of those are among the states that earn over half their budgets from user fees, and two more--Georgia and Mississippi--earn over 40 percent, significantly more than the average of about a third.

Of the three other states, Pennsylvania is only allowed to spend receipts on "major maintenance" and equipment replacement; the rest of its budget comes from general funds. Missouri gets most of its budget from a sales tax dedicated to parks. Utah apparently gets to keep less than 20 percent of its revenues. So none of these states has a large incentive to boost user fees.

Given the incentive, agencies that historically receive a huge share of their budget from appropriations can become largely self-sufficient. Before 1990 the Public Lands Division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department received 60 percent of its budget from general funds. When the 1991 legislature decreed that this would stop within four years, the agency was able to nearly double user fees, boost donations, and cut costs, thereby keeping all of its parks open without any major hardships.

As described in the article beginning on page 24, the agency accomplished this by giving managers incentives to cut costs and increase revenues. Unlike New Hampshire and Vermont, Texas parks still receive some support from a cigarette tax and other dedicated funds. But eliminating the reliance on general funds is a major achievement.

The legislatures in many states, including Alaska, Nevada, New Mexico, and North Carolina, appear to automatically appropriate park revenues back to the park agency--although as they do so they may simply deduct them from other funds that might have been appropriated for parks. Park managers in a few states, including Maine and Hawaii, see all the revenues they earn disappear into the general fund. Given these incentives, it is not surprising that all of these agencies earn less than 40 percent of their budgets in user fees.

So park managers are looking for alternate sources of funding. Few are excited about the New Hampshire and Vermont examples. Texas' "entrepreneurial budgeting system," which has helped take parks off the general fund dole by changing incentives for managers, has gained more interest.

Many park managers are most envious of the Missouri park system, which is subsidized by a 1/10th of a percent sales tax dedicated solely to soils, water, and parks. Narrowly approved by voters in 1983 with a five-year sunset, it was overwhelmingly reauthorized in 1988 and will not sunset again until 1998.

This funding allows the Missouri park system to steadily add about 3.5 percent to its acres each year--well over three times the national average. It also provides more than $16 million per year for operating the parks.

The only other state that dedicates a comparably sized tax to its parks is Florida, which puts the proceeds from a real estate transfer tax into a so-called land acquisition trust fund--"so-called" because the fund pays nearly half of the state's park operating expenses as well as increases the size of the state park system by about 2 percent per year. Florida park managers don't feel as secure about their funding as those in Missouri; they would rather fund their operations out of a fund dedicated to operations, not acquisition.

Several states provide their parks with operating and improvement funds out of cigarette taxes, lottery revenues, and other special taxes. But none are comparable in scale to Florida's real estate tax or Missouri's sales tax. So some state park managers hope they can have similar taxes. Arkansas voters will decide in 1996 whether to dedicate a 1/8th of a percent sales tax to conservation, 45 percent of which would go for parks.

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