Bye-bye vacation: California leads the pack in state park closures

This week, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recommended cutting $70 million from his state's parks budget. If this move passes, it would result in the closure of 220 of the state's 279 parks.

While Schwarzenegger's proposal is particularly severe, several other states are contemplating closures. For example, Washington state is closing 13 parks, Illinois temporarily closed 11, Arizona may close eight, and Florida may close 19. Even among those states that will manage to keep their parks open this year, many will be hiring fewer employees, staying open for fewer hours, increasing charges, and offering reduced attractions.

This has already caused problems in New York, where funding cuts have forced service reductions in more than 100 parks, and have upped charges at many others. As vacationers, child care providers, and other patrons scramble to make alternative arrangements, officials have been flooded with complaints.

Families attempting to economize have increasingly looked to state parks to provide cheap, local vacations. With available swimming, recreation, and camping facilities, they offer a credible alternative to expensive theme parks and other popular tourist attractions. In 2008, attendance at national parks increased by 18 million, and officials expect numbers to remain high this year. Unfortunately, while admissions charges help offset the cost of running parks, they cannot provide the funds necessary to keep parks open.

One solution would be to funnel part of the federal stimulus package into maintaining and running state parks. This money could be given to individual states, but earmarked for park maintenance. Following in the footsteps of the New Deal, which helped develop the infrastructure for much of the park system, this could also help address short-term unemployment problems in many areas.

Overdue maintenance in state parks is almost the definition of "shovel-ready," with plans already drawn up, and knowledgeable conservationists already in place. Moreover, with millions looking for jobs, summer trail work and facilities maintenance could be a very attractive short-term option.

A form of this plan has already been implemented by the National Park Service, which received a 7% budget increase as part of the Obama stimulus program. This has translated into an additional $750 million that will go out to parks across the country over the next 18 months.
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