State Parks to close? Not just yet

Do you like your state parks?

If you do, you aren’t alone. This year, 12 million people will visit Colorado’s 42 state parks.

According to Colorado State Parks marketing manager Clare Sinacori those people will pump some $500 million into the economies of the towns nearest the parks.

So, it may come as something of a surprise that the state is considering a plan to shut some of the parks.

As popular as state parks are, they are not self-funding. User fees and concessions account for less than half of the Colorado State Parks $61.5 million annual budget. The rest comes from a combination of public sources including about $11 million from the Colorado State Lottery, around $7.7 million in funds from Great Outdoors Colorado and $11.5 million in various state and federal grants.

It used to be that Colorado State Parks also got money from the state general fund, but those days are coming to an end. The 2008/09 budget had $6.7 million from the general fund going to the parks. The 2009/10 budget saw that fall to $2.6 million. In 2010/11, the parks system expects no money from the general fund.

Somewhere, somehow, that difference has to be made up. The parks have already cut payroll by 5-10%, and as of November 1, entrance fees have gone up at many parks.

The kicker, though, is that those measures may not be enough. The Fort Collins Coloradoan reported this morning that some parks may be closed to save money. That story was picked up by The Huffington Post under the banner headline “Parks in Peril.”

The fact is, the Colorado State Parks administrators issued a report (pdf) to the parks board a week ago, in which a five-year plan is outlined. Among the plans is the worst case scenario of closing some of the less popular parks and opening St. Vrain State Park–near Lovleand–to oil, gas and mineral development.

The parks that could be closed include Bonny Lake State Park, Sweitzer Lake State Park, Paonia State Park and Harvey Gap State Park.

Sinacori said she doesn’t expect any of those parks to be closed in the near future. “We are looking at a lot of other things before we close any parks,” she said.

She said the parks may get as much as $1.3 million next year in severance tax funds, which would replace about half of what the parks got this year in general fund monies.

She said other savings may come from streamlining administrative functions and from energy savings achieved through efficiency measures.

“We will do everything we can to keep all the parks open,” she emphasized. “We are not planning any closures at this point and we think we will be fine for another two years with the measures we’ve already taken,” she said.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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