Drill the parks


Flanked by fast food joints on its south side, the St. Vrain River on its north, residential development on the west and Interstate 25 on the east, St. Vrain State Park isn’t a reason for tourists to make a trip to Colorado. Its flat fields and cluster of ponds offer residents of Denver and its northern suburbs a place to fish, camp and even hike without having to head into the mountains — open space amid the urban sprawl. Open space is abundant in the Denver area, and Colorado’s Front Range state parks are prominent among the places locals uninterested or unable to visit the mountains can go to recreate.

Image of St. Vrain state park courtesy Bobby Magill

But St. Vrain State Park may soon become a symbol for the compromises states are willing to make when deciding how to strike a balance between dramatic budget cuts and keeping state park lands and open space available to the public. Colorado State Parks will likely receive no state funding next year, relying instead on fee increases, grant money, cost-cutting and creative ways to raise revenue for the park system. One of the state’s suggestions for keeping the system afloat: Drill the parks.

It’s often the rural public lands across the West — out of sight of city dwellers — that are targeted for oil and gas development. But in the Front Range urban corridor, where oil wells are a common sight in the farmland north and east of Denver, Colorado State Parks sees an opportunity where it owns mineral rights beneath its parks. Already, oil and gas is being produced at Barr Lake State Park northeast of Denver, but the state isn't benefiting, because it doesn’t own the mineral rights there.

As a way to raise cash, the state proposed opening St. Vrain and other state parks in Colorado’s oil and gas producing areas to fossil fuels development. This was outlined in a five-year draft financial plan released in October. The proposal would leave alone popular foothills and mountain state parks, though. Drilling is a strategy being considered along with closing up to four lightly-visited state parks, eliminating a senior citizen access pass to the state park system and striking up corporate partnerships to help fund the system.

As Colorado State Parks ponders exploiting its mineral rights and other ways of keeping the parks open, the agency’s financial situation doesn’t seem to be as desperate as in Arizona, where budget cuts have forced park closures, reduced hours, initiated park management agreements with small towns and relied on subsidies from the Hopi tribe.

After threatening to close up to 13 state parks, the Arizona State Parks Board earlier this year agreed to let the cities of Yuma, Tombstone and others manage nearby parks, and in August, a last-minute agreement with the towns of Payson and Star Valley and a group of concerned residents kept Tonto Natural Bridge State Park from closing in September. In northern Arizona, the Hopi Tribe will provide $175,000 to the state to subsidize operations at Homolovi Ruins State Park.

As the Hopi work out a deal to keep their heritage publicly accessible at Homolovi Ruins for another year, and drilling St. Vrain State Park remains only a suggested solution to a complicated problem, Arizona may prove how far state park systems across the West will take their suggestions if budget cuts become even more difficult to reconcile.

Should Colorado State Parks go ahead with energy development, it may give Denver area residents a reason to avoid visiting state parks and paying entrance fees park officials say they need so desperately.

Bobby Magill is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based journalist and photographer focusing on environment, energy and public health issues across the West. Find his work at www.bobbymagill.com and his photography at www.restlesswest.com. A South Carolina native and former outdoor educator, Bobby moved West a decade ago and has since explored every county in New Mexico and Colorado, where he has reported for newspapers in Grand Junction and Fort Collins.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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