Parks, historic sites threatened by states' budget woes

By Travis Reed, Associated Press Writer

Cataldo Mission, Idaho - By Kathy Plonka

MIAMI The economic downturn has forced states around the country to shutter historic sites and reduce visiting hours for parks. But in Florida, Illinois, California and a few other places, closures have been forestalled after outcries from the public and budget-juggling by officials.
Still, funding shortfalls threaten public access at 69 recreation and historic sites nationwide, including the oldest building in Idaho, a sacred Native American ancestral village in Arizona and a Washington kayak launch point into the Puget Sound.

Money from the stimulus bill could help. That's what made the difference in Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist determined planned closures of 19 sites would not be necessary if the state gets the proposed $12 billion in federal stimulus money.

The threatened cuts in Florida would have stretched from a Panhandle park with a rare coastal dune lake, wildflowers and migratory birds to a former Keys quarry with cross-sections of ancient fossilized coral. The sites were targeted because they have fewer visitors and less revenue than the rest of the 160-park system. Nine didn't charge any entry fee, and five that did raised less than $4,000 last year.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn just reopened seven parks that his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, had closed. But 12 historic sites around the state remain shuttered. They include a re-creation of the farmstead where Lincoln's parents lived after moving to Illinois, the Vandalia Statehouse where he started as a state legislator and the Dana-Thomas House, built by Frank Lloyd Wright more than 100 years ago.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped California's plans to close 48 parks after outraging environmentalists, some residents and politicians, deciding instead to increase fees slightly.

States that aren't closing parks and historic sites are raising fees, cutting services or both. When every expense is questioned, parks and recreation like family vacations can be an easy target. Unfortunately, the cuts come as more families are turning to state parks to save on their own expenses.

"A lot of our constituents now can't afford to go too far from home, and they do need somewhere they can get away and just relax and take advantage of the great outdoors," said Shirley K. Turner, a state senator from New Jersey.

In her state, Gov. Jon Corzine proposed closing nine state parks to help balance the budget. The areas were saved by committing $9 million in beach protection money.

"It's utilized not just by adults but a lot of children," Turner said. "We can't afford to lose that. It helps psychologically as well as physically, and there's so much stress now."

Some states, like Ohio, plan to save cash by shutting down certain destinations for just a week. It will close 14 historic sites starting March 28, a furlough sparing $191,000.

Even in states that aren't considering closures, access will be limited and staff and service cuts likely.

Grass mowing and bathroom cleaning might be less frequent in Pennsylvania parks because of staff cuts.

New York expanded winter park closures and began months ago shutting down most parks at night for the winter. Consumer costs could be doubled in some cases there, and entry fees exceeding $200 are proposed for the Empire State Games amateur sports program.

Georgia's park division is operating at a 23% staff vacancy rate. The state is moving to close or transfer operations of state golf courses and swimming pools.

Nevada could close as many as 10 of its 25 state parks seasonally, and lock up two sites that already have access problems.

Michigan hopes to raise $1.9 million by raising annual park stickers by $4 to $28 and day passes by $1 to $7.

Idaho can no longer afford the $300,000 it spent last year on Old Mission State Park, home of the 155-year-old Cataldo Mission. It hopes the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, which owns the site, or concerned nearby community members can pony up.

Hawaii is at a crossroads with a park system sorely in need of repair. The state will either close as many as five state parks or pour $240 million into a "Recreational Renaissance," which would upgrade parks, harbors, beaches and piers crumbling into the ocean.

Three parks in Arizona have already been closed temporarily and eight more face potential temporary closure. Grants there that funded law enforcement patrols on the Colorado river are being suspended and canceled, and even a $3,500 re-enactment of a Civil War battle at Picacho Peak State Park has been called off.

Sometimes, budget cuts in other areas have untended consequences for parks. In Kansas, the cost-cutting closure of three prisons that housed 160 inmates is expected to drastically affect maintenance. Inmates worked more than 81,000 hours last year on everything from cleaning to paving roads and installing cabins last year.

And business owners in many areas count on the attractions for traffic.

Washington has proposed closing two parks and transferring 13 more to other governments if they can find anyone to take them on. If not, places like nearby Lyle and Brooks Memorial Park, a 700-acre, year-round camping site that helps drive traffic into Goldendale, Wash., could suffer.

"I can't help but think it would affect us somewhat, even if it just means the guy at the grocery store isn't selling as much stuff, so he's not coming to eat," said Maren McGowan, a photographer who co-owns The Glass Onion cafe and gallery in Goldendale with her husband.

"It does mean there are people that go there that won't be in this area. If they're just trying to get where they're going and it's not here, they might not want to eat here."