Park Leaders Discuss “Devastating” Financial Future

State HouseOn Wednesday, a joint legislative committee hearing was held to discuss the future of Alabama’s State Park System and the planned hotel and conference center at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores. Staff from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources detailed the obstacles facing the park system and offered potential solutions, but ultimately the future of our state parks remains in the hands of legislature as they debate several different budget options for the next fiscal year.

By way of introducing the park system’s financial problems, Greg Lein, State Parks Director, reminded the committee that the General Fund earmarks for the state park system were eliminated in 2012. The funds were restored in 2014, but two years without state funding drained the system’s reserves. Even though 2014 was a record year for revenue from admission and user fees, Lein said that the funds provided by the state are vital to the park system’s ability to update its aging infrastructure and remain competitive with other tourist destinations.

The committee asked Lein about the potential for the park system to become independent from state funding, which he said was unlikely because of the expense of maintaining the system’s infrastructure. Additionally, Lein noted that Alabama’s State Park user fees are much higher than Tennessee’s to account for the lack of state funding our parks receive, and further increasing fees could deter park visitors.

Commissioner Guy reinforced Lein’s point, saying that the park system’s current surplus of $3 million, which would be wiped out by the austerity budget, has to carry the entire system through the fall and winter when attendance declines. “The park system wasn’t set up to make money,” Guy said. “It was set up to serve the community.”

When asked by Senator Billy Beasley (D-Clayton) to explain the potential impact of the loss of funding that the austerity budget mandates, Commissioner Guy said, “It’s devastating.”

Several members of the committee offered solutions for the park system’s budget shortfall. Representative Alan Harper (R-Aliceville) noted that in his district, the City of Northport is willing to take over ownership of Lake Lurleen State Park to make updates to the facilities and add amenities. According to Harper, Governor Bentley is supportive of this plan, and said that he wishes more communities would “step up to the plate” like Northport.

Representative Will Ainsworth (R-Guntersville) asked for DCNR’s opinion on a suggestion by Senator Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville) to use Forever Wild funds to maintain Alabama’s State Parks. Commissioner Guy said while he thought the plan was “well-intended,” the legality of those kinds of transfers is questionable, and even if they were legal, it would be a one-time influx of revenue that would not sustain the park system.

Curtis Jones, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, stressed the importance of a long-term solution for state parks funding. Jones noted that until parks have permanent, protected funding, investments in the system’s infrastructure or amenities will be impossible.

The state’s budget talks are likely to continue in a special legislative session, since we are entering the final days of the regular session. There is no word on when or if state parks would begin closing if the legislature passes the austerity budget. Contact your legislator now and let them know that Alabama’s State Parks should not be a casualty of the budget debate.

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