Flush with federal cash, states invest in their crowded parks

Alex Brown
Stateline.org

For years, Michigan officials have fretted about the ever-growing list of overdue maintenance needs at their 103 state parks: roads and trails, water and sewer systems, restrooms and electrical infrastructure. All are in dire need of replacement or repair — with a price tag that exceeds a quarter-billion dollars.

“A lot of these parks are coasting on the fumes of the investments we made in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” said Dan Eichinger, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “We’ve had this $264 million millstone around our neck.”

Much of that aging infrastructure was pushed to the limit last year, as the pandemic drove people outdoors in record numbers. Michigan state parks saw 36 million visitors in 2020, up from 27 million in a typical year. State leaders expect that demand to continue.

So when the American Rescue Plan dropped more than $6 billion in federal funds into the state’s coffers this year, state leaders saw a chance to finally fix their parks. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has proposed investing $250 million of the aid into the maintenance backlog at state parks. That’s more than 10 times what the state spends on park infrastructure in an average year. Michigan’s parks budget, for both operations and capital work, is about $100 million annually.

“None of us could have predicted this opportunity to resolve the infrastructure backlog on a much shorter timescale,” Eichinger said. “We're talking about a quarter of a billion dollars and the ability to correct all of the sins of the past 50, 60, 70 years. We've got to take advantage of this moment.”

Michigan isn’t alone. Nearly every state saw a surge in visitors to its state parks during the pandemic, which brought attention to the maintenance and upgrades necessary to deal with the record crowds.

Topanga State Park on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Topanga, California. Many states, including California, are investing more in their state parks.

State park leaders say their agencies are among the first to be targeted for budget cuts during tough economic times. Between 2008 and 2019, spending on state park operations fell from $3 billion to $2.5 billion nationwide, according to the Property and Environmental Research Center, a Montana-based free market environmental think tank.

Now, with state budgets suddenly flush with billions of dollars in federal relief and long-standing parks issues getting newfound attention, many governors and lawmakers of both parties are directing massive investments toward their state parks.

“It’s absolutely unprecedented,” said Lewis Ledford, who heads the North Carolina-based National Association of State Park Directors. “State parks continue to be very much in demand, and virtually all of the states are in a much more favorable light for capital funding considerations.”

In Michigan, Whitmer’s proposal will need approval from the state legislature. State Sen. Ed McBroom, a Republican who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, applauded the push to invest more money in state parks. McBroom would prefer to see the money placed into a park endowment fund to collect interest and pay for parks work over a longer period.

Eichinger said the endowment plan has merit, but the state’s pressing infrastructure needs call for more immediate use of the money. Both leaders said they expect the debate to lead to substantial investments in state parks, in one form or another.

“The federal funding definitely makes this conversation so much easier,” McBroom said.

In Maine, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has proposed investing $50 million of the federal relief funds into state parks. The money would be used to resurface roads and parking lots, upgrade restrooms and playgrounds and improve access for disabled visitors.

“This would be the first meaningful investment in state parks in more than a decade,” said Amanda Beal, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Beal said lawmakers are expected to decide on the proposal in the coming weeks. Maine’s annual parks budget is about $10 million, Beal said.

Neighboring New Hampshire already has directed nearly $23 million of the federal funding into its state parks, citing the familiar list of maintenance needs. The state’s budget for its parks is about $30 million annually.

“We’ve seen a remarkable increase in demand for parks,” said Brent Wucher, a public information officer with New Hampshire Parks and Recreation. “This money is a godsend, and these investments are going to have repercussions for the next 20 to 30 years.”

Nick Abraham, state communications director with the League of Conservation Voters, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy group, said the federal stimulus money helped spare important conservation programs in many states.

“Conservation was taking a big hit when state budgets got hit from COVID,” he said. “Now we’re seeing a lot of states fighting to protect outdoor and conservation funding. The COVID relief funding really helped solidify that.”

North Carolina directed more than $2 million from the first federal pandemic relief bill, the CARES Act, to its state parks for trail maintenance, safety and rescue equipment to help weather the surge in visitors during the pandemic.

Wyoming used more than $600,000 in CARES Act funds for state parks, and Republican Gov. Mark Gordon is pushing to invest another $6.5 million from the latest federal package to deal with overcrowding issues.

Lawmakers in Indiana allocated $60 million of the state’s stimulus money to a trail construction program. New Mexico lawmakers earmarked $14.5 million of the federal funds for state parks and historic sites, but that item was vetoed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat. Lujan Grisham did not respond to a request for comment.

Some states with budgets shored up by the federal stimulus are using their own resources to increase parks funding. Earlier this year, Missouri lawmakers approved a $68 million package that would fund new campground and lodging projects through bonds and grants.

“Policymakers saw the popularity and the positive impact that Missouri state parks had on families during the pandemic — probably even their own families,” said Mike Sutherland, director of Missouri State Parks. “We also had some overcrowding and capacity issues, and there was a definite recognition of the need for upgrades.”

Missouri’s state parks operating budget is $68 million for the next fiscal year, with $14 million for capital investments.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has proposed a $170 million funding increase for capital projects at state parks, trail work and local parks investments over the next two years. He’s also backing a $250 million bond that would provide money for maintenance, new parks, climate resilience and projects at local parks. The state’s annual parks budget is about $65 million, with $16 million of that set aside for capital needs.

Dwayne Patterson, director of North Carolina State Parks, said the record-breaking attendance the state saw during the pandemic hasn’t slowed, and it exposed infrastructure needs and capacity issues.

“This funding would be transformational for us,” he said. “Our biggest problem has been maintenance, parking and overcrowding. This would fix a tremendous amount of those issues, modernize a lot of our equipment and add a lot more campgrounds.”

Patterson estimated the park system’s deferred maintenance needs total $650 million.

In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed a $500 million investment in state parks, with about $100 million of that coming from federal funds. The proposal would pay for wildfire restoration and address the park system’s maintenance backlog. Newsom also proposed $125 million to create and revitalize green spaces in underserved communities.

“State parks are what got many of us through the pandemic, and these issues of climate, public health and access really converged this last year in California,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, California state director of the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that works on parks and conservation issues. “That is what catapulted the state to make a significant increase in parks and open space.”

While the California budget is still being negotiated, Rodriguez said he expects lawmakers to meet or exceed Newsom’s funding request for state parks. The state’s parks maintenance backlog totals $1.2 billion.

Tennessee lawmakers funded a proposal to spend an additional $30 million on maintenance needs at state parks, cutting into the agency’s estimated $82 million backlog. Colorado legislators directed $20 million toward 12 state parks to improve access. The state’s annual parks budget is about $100 million.

The Montana legislature passed a bill that would tax recreational marijuana and direct 20% of the funding to conservation and another 4% each to state parks, trails, recreational facilities and wildlife protection.

In Alabama, state leaders are asking voters to approve an $85 million bond plan that would renovate campgrounds, cabins and other facilities. The park system’s budget is about $40 million annually. And Florida lawmakers approved $50 million in funding for facilities work at state parks, up from $37 million in the previous fiscal year, said Julia Gill Woodward, CEO of the Florida State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the parks.

“We have a list hundreds of spreadsheet lines long of aging infrastructure needs, accessibility projects, boardwalk repairs, hurricane damage,” Woodward said. “This is going to allow us to make a bigger dent in that list.”

State park leaders across the country say it will take anywhere from a year and a half to five years to complete the projects their states are now funding. But they expect the legacy of that work to extend further. Eichinger, the Michigan leader, noted that many state parks still have buildings and trails constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

“Those opportunities don't come around often,” he said. “We have that chance now, and we have to take it. If we blow this, shame on us.”