Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Did you know North Carolina's parks are free to attend?

One more example of South Carolina's lawmakers being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

The Sun-News of Myrtle Beach took note of North Carolina's General Assembly cutting appropriations for its state parks system this year. It's not a shock; the economy is bad everywhere, and the Old North State's legislature began to to resemble our own after last November's election.

North Carolina's state parks limp this week into a new budget year with a 25 percent cut from the legislature, growing hordes of visitors and a sense that things could be worse. As states struggle with deficits, the nation's parks are under siege. California will close 70 of its 278 parks. Washington State withdrew all state support. Ohio plans to allow oil and gas drilling in its parks. No N.C. parks are expected to close.

But visitors will pay more to camp, swim or picnic, because of fee hikes last year. They'll find fewer rangers and more peeling paint. The park system also will lose millions from the trust fund that has helped it grow by about 5,000 acres a year since 1996. The fund is still paying off two landmark additions, the Chimney Rock and Grandfather Mountain tourist attractions.

Little will be left this year. Legislators diverted $8.4 million from the trust, which gets income from real estate excise taxes, to help balance the state budget. They took an additional $6 million for park operations, effectively lowering the appropriations cut to 5.6 percent. The trust fund avoided an even bigger blow: a bill that would have cut revenue by half.

"We considered that a bigger threat than the budget because that would have shut down state parks," said David Pearson, a Swansboro real estate broker who leads Friends of State Parks. The group advocates and provides volunteers for parks.

But I took note of a different fact in the same article: Every single one of North Carolina's state parks, even after budget cuts, remains free and open to the public.

Despite the grim financial climate, park officials still show little appetite for a dollar stream that's long been taboo - entrance fees. North Carolina is one of only nine states that don't charge them. A recent study from N.C. State University found that the cost of installing and staffing fee stations would offset the revenue. The study predicted that visits would fall, hurting the parks' $400 million annual contribution to local economies.

The state savors its history of free parks. Many were created with grassroots support when development, logging and mining threatened beloved natural places. Most of their visitors live no more than an hour or two away.

"There's strong sentiment in North Carolina that people want their parks open," said parks director Lewis Ledford.

Look at that. In North Carolina, citizens want free and easy access to their natural resources, and their lawmakers provide it. Why don't ours?

Many states feel that parks should be as free as libraries, said Rich Dolesh, policy chief at the National Recreation and Park Association.
Just across the state line, South Carolina's parks run on a different business model. Many have rental cabins and two have golf courses. Most of them charge entrance fees. Parks are part of the state tourism department - North Carolina's are in the environmental agency - and rely heavily on marketing.

The South Carolina system also has increased its dependence on fees, which now generate nearly 80 percent of its operating budget, compared to about 20 percent in North Carolina.

The shift "has allowed us to focus on what customers want," said S.C. Parks Director Phil Gaines. "The people who use the parks are literally paying for their parks."

So we're tourists in our own state.

Here's a thought: A lot of South Carolinians can't afford to pay entrance fees for large families. But if those parks were free and accessible, those families might use them. What's better: Having children sitting at home during summer break in front of the television, or out exploring South Carolina's natural resources?

Having free and accessible state parks seems to have worked well for North Carolina, where its citizens aren't considered paying customers...

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