Growing up in southern Wisconsin, state parks were a major part of my childhood. My first-ever adventure into the parks was with my Scout Troop at Mirror Lake State Park near Lake Delton, Wis. Since then, I’ve visited Devil’s Lake, Perrot State Park, Peninsula State Park and many others. All in all, the Wisconsin State Parks have always been educational and inspirational, and provide everyone affordable access to some of the most beautiful natural wonders of our state.
The park system has seen a fluctuating attendance rate over the past 10 years, according to attendance estimates from 2002-12. Over the course of the last decade, numbers rose and fell. In 2002 roughly 13.7 million people visited parks. In 2011 the number was still 13.7 million, after the number rose as high as 14.4 million in 2010 and as low as 13.1 million in 2005. That’s an unstable stream of people, and exactly the reason the state park system originally received equal funding from state and user revenue. In 1995, the legislature voted to end that requirement, and the amount of state aid has dropped continually since, now at 28 percent of its overall revenue.
Today, the Wisconsin Parks System is facing another decrease in public funding as a result of Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal. Walker’s current proposal includes a provision that would remove all public funding from the state park system, making the system completely dependent on revenue generated from entrance fees. To make up for these massive cuts, entrance fees across the state would need to increase. Of course, this plan also assumes that park attendance remains constant. Looking at the large variability in park attendance, this plan has obvious risk, and many would even argue it is doomed from the start.
Numerous park system supporters have also expressed concern for the proposal. In an interview with the Stevens Point Journal, Steve Engler, former president of the Friends of Rib Mountain State Park, said “[If] they (the Walker administration) want us to be partners in the park, then let us be partners and not caretakers.” Similarly, Bill Herrbold, president of Friends of Hartman Creek State Park, shared his discontent over how the budget cuts will diminish the quality of Hartman Creek. “I know from my personal experience that the Hartman Creek State Park doesn’t have the funds necessary to buy essential equipment right now,” he said. “It’s not going to be a quality experience any longer.”
Even if attendance estimates remain consistent, the system will be left with a $1 million budget cut, nearly 7 percent of their budget. This will leave the parks with even less resources to handle their maintenance, programs and promotion. A cut would significantly impact the quality of park programs. This threatens the entire plan, considering the system is dependent on a general increase in the amount of visitors over time.
Supporters of the cuts say they are necessary to balance the budget and share the sacrifice equally. However, they ignore the $1 billion state parks are estimated to bring into the state through tourism. Any major impact on state parks’ abilities to attract and keep visitors will hurt the Wisconsin tourism industry, killing jobs and stifling economic development around the state.
A National Conference of State Legislatures report suggests user-revenue supported state parks haven’t been particularly successful nation-wide in financing themselves. In fact, the only parks in Wisconsin large enough to survive on entrance fees are Devil’s Lake and Peninsula State Park. The rest lack much of the infrastructure and businesses to boost revenue, like restaurants and shops.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the plan is the message it sends about the nature of state parks. A user-revenue funded system suggests the park is only there for the purpose of human use. However, state parks also play an important role in the conservation of natural areas throughout the state. Their worth comes from the ecosystems, species and interwoven relationships they protect. To base the protection of those areas on the ever-fluctuating attendance numbers is not only dangerous, but ignorant of the important role these parks play in conservation.
The evidence says this plan may fail. It may kill jobs and harm the still slow job market. It will harm our parks with additional cuts. And it sends the message that parks exist for our pleasure and no other purpose. Let’s protect the public-private partnership of our state park system, with a balance of state funding and user-revenue. They need our shared support more than ever.
Alex Derr ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in environmental studies and political science.