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State Parks Spread the Wealth

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Judith Lewis Mernit | Sep 02, 2009 11:08 AM

The Road-Warrior anarchy that may await some state parks in the West (see "Lawless Future" in this week's issue) if funding cutbacks close park gates may not have much of an impact on overall state revenues. Despite what many good-hearted park defenders argue, state parks don't rake in piles of cash. Only 13 of California's sexiest state parks -- the surfer-riddled state beaches and the near-mythic Hearst Castle -- generate enough revenue from camping and visitors’ fees to pay for themselves. The rest limp along on state subsidies, straining the public coffers with repair bills and rangers' salaries.

The same holds true in other Western states; almost nobody in any state can argue that historic buildings preserved with state funds help balance budgets. There is, however, more to life than generating revenue. There is also merit in spreading revenue, which may be what state parks in the Western states do best. “There is a dramatic impact [from state parks] on the local, rural economies,” says Oregon State Parks spokesperson Chris Havel. “It’s difficult to put numbers on it because the psyche of the traveler is strange. But we know it’s enough to help keep some towns alive.”

Obtaining hard figures on the economic benefits of state parks on local economies would require "a lot of computations and complicated formulas," Havel says. "But we can say that [a group of] people generally spend $150 to $180 per trip over two or three days within 25 miles of  state park." In California the governor and his staff dismissed a similar pro-parks argument, saying that most state-park visitors come from within the state; they would have spent that money in the state anyway. Havel admits that's true in Oregon, too, but it's not the point.

“The spending people do around state parks has the effect of taking wealth from the cities and moving it to a rural economy,” he says. "In a state where we have 11.9 percent unemployment, that's significant."

In Arizona, where anti-tax groups have put heavy pressure on state legislators not to rely on anything so obvious as a tax increase to solve the state’s budget crisis, the keepers of state-owned parks are hitting the share-the-wealth meme hard. "Even Teddy Roosevelt recognized that both state and national parks were a way to generate economic benefits to the towns in the rural West," says spokeswoman Ellen Bilbrey. "Which is why we're going to be asking the local communities for help keeping these parks open."

Last February, a consortium of Arizona academics and boosters completed one of the most thorough studies ever done in the West on the job-creating and wealth-shifting perks of their state parks system. The report, which analyzes the effect of 27 parks on 13 rural economies, does indeed use a lot of computations and complex formulas to quantify the “direct, indirect and induced” benefits of having a state park in your rural town, and concludes that close to $300 million gets re-circulated around Arizona thanks to popular parks like Lake Havasu, where city dwellers from two states gather to party on the Colorado River. Written in splendidly intricate detail, the study makes for difficult reading. It is also, consequently, hard to dispute.

“You have to keep these parks open,” Bilbrey pleads. “You have to. We have to get through the crisis because we are the economic engine for rural Arizona. It's just the best way we know to lure tourists out of the urban centers.”

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