CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

March 27, 2013

Cuts to state park operations may be ahead

By KATHY WINGARD
Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Some services could be eliminated at state parks across Alabama and operating hours could be cut because of budget problems, the state conservation department says.

State parks director Gregory Lien has written a letter to community leaders warning them that local stores selling everything from picnic supplies to camping gear could see reduced sales.

Parks can’t operate solely on the money they generate, which they have been forced to do, parks officials said Tuesday.

“The state parks are not designed to make money. They are preserved lands for the people of Alabama,” said Curtis Jones, deputy commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His department operates state parks.

User fees traditionally generate about 90 percent of the money to operate state parks. They declined after the Gulf oil spill reduced visitation to Gulf State Park in 2010 and after tornadoes in April 2011 damaged parks in north Alabama and they weren’t visited as much.

In addition, the Legislature for the last two years has found other uses for $5 million in state tax revenue that had traditionally gone to the parks. That practice was supposed to end this fiscal year, but legislation is pending in the current session to keep moving the money to other uses through fiscal 2014. In addition, $2 million in tobacco taxes that went to the parks has also been shifted to other programs.

Gov. Robert Bentley said Tuesday some parks may have to close or cut hours. “We are still working through that and trying to come up with a solution,” he said.

But he said parks would have enough money to operate if the Legislature would approve a bill that would allow a private company to build a convention hotel at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores. The bill was blocked last year by opponents, but is back in the current legislative session.

Former state Conservation Commissioner Charley Grimsley opposes that project because he said state parks should remain affordable and accessible to the average Alabama family. He said funding has always been a problem for parks, and state officials must take the long view.

“I hope these lands are there for our grandchildren and beyond,” Grimsley said.

Jones said the staff at state parks has shrunk from 1,000 to 575, and there are about $40 million in maintenance and repair projects that need to be done. Those projects range from replacing old mattresses to fixing damage at DeSoto State Park caused by a tornado on March 18.

He said the cuts could mean shorter hours for picnic grounds and golf courses and possibly going to operations only four days a week for some parks in rural areas.

“Those rural parks are the city parks of those communities. The same people use them continuously for hiking, fishing and just taking their kids out in nature. It’s part of raising their families,” he said.

Lien’s letter to community leaders was first reported by the Decatur Daily and TimesDaily.