Budget would close most state parks two days a week

On Wednesday, North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced that attendance at its 39 state parks and recreation areas last year was 14.1 million, just short of the all-time record  (The record of 14.2 million visitors was set in 2009.)

The next day, Gov. Beverly Perdue announced her proposed budget for 2011-12. Among many other things, it proposed that most state parks close for two days a week to deal with a projected $3.7 billion budget shortfall.

The timing of DENR’s release on how popular state parks are couldn’t have been better. Not only did it show how popular the parks are, it also quoted a 2008 study by N.C. State’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management that “estimated the state parks system’s total annual economic impact at more than $400 million.” Let’s see, 71 percent of $400 million is … $284 million. That’s a loss of revenue to the state of $116 million by closing the parks two days a week.

It only took the governor’s budget 51 words to address the parks and rec budget reduction, but those 51 words are surprisingly fuzzy. Under the heading “Parks and Recreation / 1. Management Flexibility Reduction” (page 246 of the 343-page document, if you’d like to follow along), the proposed budget suggests that the Division of Parks and Recreation may decide on its own how to cut 10 percent from its budget. But then it states that this cut “will require the closure of most parks two days per week.”

Diana Kees, DENR’s Director of Communications, said Friday it was unclear exactly what that meant. DENR was required to submit proposed cuts of 5, 10 and 15 percent to the governor, and the 15 percent reduction suggested most parks would have to close three days a week,” but she couldn’t find a similar reference under DENR’s 10 percent plan.

“It doesn’t match up,” she said.

Kees said it was way too early in the process to speculate about which parks might have to shift to a five-day week. “Every state park is different,” she said. Besides, the state legislature must now come back with its budget, which it says it will present by June 1. In the interim, she says DENR and the Division of Parks and Recreation will be assessing the situation. If they’re assessing the situation based on increases in attendance, then Hanging Rock, which saw a 38 percent spike in visitors last year, New River State Park (up 31 percent) and Goose Creek State Park (29 percent), might feel safe. If they look at the parks based on total visitors, then Jockey’s Ridge (1.5 million visitors in 2010), Fort Macon (1.3 million) and Kerr Lake (997,616) might feel secure.

It’s a good bet DENR will make its case with the legislature using these numbers to show how popular — and lucrative — state parks can be. They might also mention the results of recent studies circulated by the National Recreation and Park Association showing the health benefits of investing in parks. One study showed that people who lived within a half mile of a park got 17 more minutes of physical activity. Another found that 85 percent of middle-aged and older residents in five cities had visited a park with the past year, and 40 percent went more than once a week.

“The physical benefits of park and recreation access are sort of obvious, but we have to look at the reverse,” Geof Godbey, professor emeritus of leisure studies at Penn State told ScienceDaily. “If people aren’t going to parks, what would they be doing with that time? Would they be sitting at home, drinking a few beers, eating cheese puffs, and watching reruns on television?”

Added Andrew Mowen, associate professor of recreation and parks management at the school, “Most people, especially elected officials, consider park and recreational services as an amenity or as discretionary spending. These studies argue that park and recreational facilities are part of the health care system, or should be.”

Especially in a state with the public health woes of North Carolina.

Photo: Hikers crowd the trail at Umstead State Park on Feb. 12, 2011.

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