On Thursday afternoon, the Alabama State Senate took up Senate Bill 260, which calls for a constitutional amendment to protect state parks’ funding by specifying that any money earned by or allocated for parks can only be spent on parks. This bill was introduced in response to the years of administrative transfers of funding from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to the state’s General Fund. Unfortunately, misunderstandings about how state parks are funded and the purpose of our park system led to Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston) asking for the bill to be held over until next week.
Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville), a sponsor of the bill, noted that Alabama is unique in the southeast because we pay for our state parks through a revolving fund of money earned by the parks themselves, instead of allocating money through the General Fund. Scofield also said that state parks are a “money maker” that can “support themselves” if given the chance. “In years past, because the General Fund has been in the shape it has, money has been transferred out and it’s really put a strain on them to keep the parks up,” Sen. Scofield said. “We’ve decided state parks have to take care of themselves. Let’s let them take care of themselves.”
Sen. Marsh asked if Sen. Scofield would go beyond stipulating that parks’ funding can only be spent on parks and specify that individual parks can only spend money that they have earned. For example, Bladon Springs State Park would not be able to use any of the funds earned by Gulf State Park despite being part of the same state agency. Marsh suggested the state “let the ones that are making money reap the benefits and let the others go to the wayside.”
At the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ state budget hearing on January 14, Commissioner Gunter Guy made it clear that state parks are more than just a revenue stream. “Parks are not meant to be self-sustaining,” Guy said, pointing out that they are offered as a “benefit to the public.” Commissioner Guy also noted that seven out of the 22 state parks are profitable. If Sen. Marsh’s idea to restrict revenue to the park where it was earned is put into law, the state could lose fifteen of our parks.
Since the beginning of 2016, more than 3,000 messages have been sent to legislators and Gov. Bentley in support of our parks. Over half of those messages were to urge legislators to vote YES on SB260 and its companion bill HB249 as they are currently written. Twenty-three of those messages went to Sen. Del Marsh. Voters have made it clear that all of our parks are valuable, and all of them support the outdoor recreation that is such an important part of our state’s way of life. Let your senator know SB260 should be passed as written to protect our parks.
Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner Gunter Guy did not mince words during his agency’s budget hearing on Thursday, saying that the legislature’s administrative transfers of money from his department are “killing” state parks.
In advance of the 2016 state legislative session, budget committees are hearing testimony from state agencies on their budget needs for the next fiscal year. Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) made it clear the legislature will not be raising taxes in 2016, and there will be no borrowing from the state’s Education Trust Fund to fill budget gaps.
Commissioner Guy stressed the importance of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, saying that DCNR’s programs have a $3 billion economic impact on the state. That is in addition to the $400-$500 million economic impact related to state parks. Commissioner Guy also noted that hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation are part of our “way of life” here in Alabama. DCNR does not receive money from the state General Fund, and relies on earmarked money, revenue from the state’s cigarette tax, and user fees from permits and park entry costs for its funding.
Despite public outcry in support of our state parks during the 2015 legislative sessions, the legislature continued its practice of requiring administrative transfers of funds from DCNR to the General Fund. Commissioner Guy addressed this, saying that while DCNR is willing to try anything to keep parks open and accessible, it will be impossible for them to do so as long as the legislature takes money the parks have earned and gives it to the General Fund for other uses.
State Parks Director Greg Lien said that there are agreements in place with local communities to keep Bladon Springs, Florala, and Paul Grist State Parks open to the public.
The 2016 legislative session begins on Tuesday, February 2. Send a message to your elected officials now to let them know that we love our state parks and we want them open and accessible!
Last week I attended a public meeting about the future of Alabama’s coast. I sat at a table with some of the smartest people we have working to protect it. We discussed the importance of monitoring the health of the Gulf, our bays and rivers. We talked about projects that would benefit our fisheries and our beaches, and the importance of educating our communities about how to protect our natural resources. But we kept coming back to our stories. Stories of how we enjoyed being on the water when we were kids, how walking on the beach or just sitting on a pier is so much a part of who we are that it shocked us to our core after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to discover we could lose it.
If you talk to people who live along Alabama’s coast, you will discover what came of the disaster four years ago is a deep passion to protect our way of life. For me, it is simple. I grew up in south Louisiana, and from an early age I was exposed to the abundance that came from our waters. I had crawfish boils in my backyard with friends and family, learned to make gumbo with my grandmother and how to fish at my grandfather’s side. Now it’s my children’s turn to scoop fish and crabs out of the water, learn to prepare those local delicacies and spend time discovering the joy of our beaches and waterways here along the Gulf Coast.
Until now, the Gulf of Mexico has never been given the funding opportunities of the Chesapeake or Great Lakes. The RESTORE Act mandates that 80% of fines collected for the oil spill under the Clean Water Act must return to the Gulf Coast to pay for restoration. This is a unique opportunity to solve environmental problems, and we should not let it go to waste. Whether you live on Alabama’s coast or elsewhere in the state, this funding impacts you. Our coastal counties bring in significant tax revenue that help support our state, and many of you who live in Huntsville, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Auburn or elsewhere vacation on Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
On Wednesday, October 15 the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources will host a webinar on the RESTORE Act from 3:30 – 5:00 p.m. with information on these funds, how they can be spent, and how you can be involved in these decisions. Time will be provided for your questions, and we hope you will participate. You can register for the online webinar here. This is our state, our coast, and our once in a lifetime opportunity to make a difference.