Budget crisis may doom Oregon's state parks

 

LINCOLN CITY, Ore. - At first glance, Road's End Wayside Rest Area here is simply a big asphalt parking lot, complete with a bathroom and stairs winding downhill.

But the stairs lead to a huge, sandy beach, making it one of more than 60 public access points on the Oregon coast. Public beach access has been one of Oregon's biggest selling points since the 1960s, when the late environmental pioneer Tom McCall pushed it through as governor.

Now, this access point, 20 others and more than 60 state parks overall are in danger of closing. That's because a state parks system that has drawn fan mail from all over the country can't win the financial support of Oregon's voters and politicians.

In late June, the State Parks and Recreation Commission voted to close these parks after Labor Day to wipe out a $3.5 million deficit. Another 40 out of a total of 220 state parks could close in a year. Many of the parks could be sold off for private development. Others would be fenced off.

The crisis comes even though Oregon has one of the country's most popular state park systems. State officials say the parks draw 40 million visitors a year, ranking fifth nationwide, and generate $500 million annually for the economies of surrounding cities and towns.

The parks help give Oregon its green image. State parks include beach campgrounds, open riverbanks, pine, spruce, hemlock or cedar forests, basalt cliffs, ornamental gardens, rock climber havens and ordinary picnic grounds.

"I was born and raised in Oregon, and my children were born and raised here," said Brady Adams, a Republican who serves as state Senate majority leader. "Many of those parks on the list for closure have personal family memories for me."

Why, then, are the parks in trouble? Largely it's because Oregon voters have been in a conservative mood since 1980, when they started passing measures that took revenue generated by a gasoline tax from the parks, limited officials' ability to increase property taxes and required the spending of large amounts of money on new prisons.

These votes have squeezed the parks' budget. Officials have had to raise fees to among the country's highest for state parks: $16 for a tent camping site and up to $22 for an RV hookup. As a result, visitation has dropped slightly in recent years, making the money problems worse.

Now, state legislators have asked parks officials to hold off closing parks until November, when they hope to find more money. Parks commissioners say they're torn, because keeping the parks open now would put them deeper in the financial hole in November if more money doesn't appear.

The commission will consider the issue again in August, and parks department director Bob Meinen won't say if he'll recommend keeping the parks open or closing them. "I want to reflect on it," he says.

To comment on the park closures, write the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department at 1115 Commercial St. NE, Salem, OR 97310-1001.

The writer works for the Statesman-Journal in Salem, Oregon.

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