State Parks Juggle More Visitors With Budget Cuts
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And as state and local governments put the squeeze on spending, they're taking money out of parks and after-school recreation programs. The funding cuts come as demand for these services is going up.
From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Jenny Brundin reports.
(Soundbite of power mower)
JENNY BRUNDIN: The fall leaves disappear in the path of a power mower at Territorial Statehouse State Park. It breaks the usual quiet of the historic grounds in the center of the tiny town of Fillmore, Utah.
The man on the mower takes a break to introduce himself.
Mr. CARL CAMP (Curator, Territorial Statehouse State Park): I'm the curator.
BRUNDIN: You're the curator, and you're mowing the loan.
Mr. CAMP: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CAMP: Our staff has been reduced so I'm kind of the curator slash whatever else needs to be done.
BRUNDIN: Mirroring a nationwide trend, Utah's state parks took a deep cut earlier this year. Another double digit cut is likely next year, so one of Utah's oldest and most important parks is down to one employee, Carl Camp. The 13-year park veteran has explored many of Utah's open spaces, and for him parks restore, inspire and teach.
Mr. CAMP: Those connections to what we really are are found in the parks.
BRUNDIN: He's had to cut outreach programs to schools and accept the help of volunteers like Tess Rasmussen(ph) and her friend Abe Johnson(ph).
Ms. TESS RASMUSSEN (Volunteer): Well, I am getting all the dead wood and the spent blooms out of these roses…
Mr. ABE JOHNSON (Volunteer): You know, I didn't ever think my physical therapist would be out here pruning the roses.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BRUNDIN: Johnson laments that the park just doesn't look like it used to.
Mr. JOHNSON: This last cut, it cut the insides of this park badly.
BRUNDIN: The recession has dealt a devastating blow to parks and recreation budgets across the country. Pennsylvania and California's budgets were cut about 20 percent - Georgia, 40 percent. Visitors may find closed camp grounds, overgrown trails, or dirty bathrooms.
As lawmakers cut, however, the number of visitors to state parks is surging. Utah Parks director Mary Tullius says the economy forced people to stay closer to home.
Ms. MARY TULLIUS (Utah Division of Parks & Recreation): We had one of the busiest summers we've ever had, so we had more people in the parks but we had fewer staff to help them to keep the rest rooms clean, to collect the fees and to take care of those customers.
BRUNDIN: A new report by the think tank Resources for the Future shows that parks and recreation does suffer a disproportionate share of the budget cuts. During the last recession, local spending declined up to 2 percent. But cuts to parks and rec were deeper - up to 13 percent.
This year, from Atlanta to Phoenix, entire sports divisions and after-school programs are being eliminated as budgets are slashed by a third or more. Retired D.C. Parks and Rec manager Sharron Wilson(ph) says the cuts the least, the lost, and the left out.
Ms. SHARRON WILSON (Retired Parks and Rec Manager): Recreation is the be all to end all when it comes to the children leaving school and afternoon and on weekends having a safe place to go and having mentorship and people to care and to take care, because a lot kids are deprived, and so those are the ones that we really know have been hit the hardest.
BRUNDIN: So this year the focus of the National Recreation and Park Association is to transform the sector from first on the chopping block to an essential service.
Barbara Tulipane is the group's president.
Ms. BARBARA TULIPANE (National Recreation and Park Association): And here's our challenge. When you hear of all the things our nation is facing, it's very easy to dismiss the importance of parks, and they say, oh, we don't want to put money into a park or into a pool. But the reality is that's exactly what you need to do because Americans are very stressed and they need to have these outlets for all the reasons we know.
BRUNDIN: A national campaign launches next year to prove with research and data that parks and recreation can be the solution to many societal problems, from juvenile crime and obesity to air pollution and depressed urban economies.
For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin in Salt Lake City.