The Green Cheapies

The State of Our Parks

Chad W. Lutz
State parks arguably represent cornerstone attributes of American Culture. Since inception in the early 1800s, state parks across the United States have offered both weekend warriors and those simply appreciative of woodlands and wetlands ways to escape and enjoy the natural splendor found widespread throughout the country. The National Association of State Park Directors estimates there are more than 6,600 state parks in operation in the U.S. as of May 2011. Many of these parks were assisted in development in the 1930s by economic stimulus projects like Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps. But political landscapes have changed drastically since the 1930s, and even more drastically since the early 1800s when national and state parks first began setting up camp in the United States.

Notably fathered by Theodore Roosevelt with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, it was actually Andrew Jackson on April 20, 1832, who first paved the way for modern park systems by allocating land for preservation in Arkansas. The area, now known as Hot Springs National Park, serves as the oldest reserve in the National Park System, but not without adversity.

Today, Ohio calls home to 74 state parks encompassing roughly 714,000 acres of land. To give you a little perspective, the State of Rhode Island stands only 768,000 acres (rounded). These venues offer families and nature-lovers of all ages and creeds a closer and more remote and intimate look at the back-scapes of this great Buckeye State. Beginning Memorial Day weekend and running year-round in many cases, Ohio offers parks with opportunities to fish and hike and run and swim and paddleboat until you’re blue in the face (and then some).
Map of Ohio State Parks
For many, these parks offer more than just an escape, but a lifetime of memories. You think back on things like your first s’more, or maybe your child’s first s’more or canoe ride. You remember the beaches of West Branch State Park or tubing down The Clear Fork Mohican River towing a cold six-pack, raising cans in salute to the sun and brandishing smiles that last forever. There are the hay fights during hayrides we’ll never forget and that one time it down-poured in the middle of the night and we had to scramble around to get everything packed into the car because, unbeknownst to us, the damn tent leaks and nobody bothered to check before…

Sorry, kinda got off track there.

And it would be one thing if, in perhaps a more “perfect world”, all of this could continue to exist without threat of diminishment or depreciation; that, perhaps, we could go back to these places in our older years and not wonder in quiet solemnity, “What happened?” But, as political tides shift and funding falls prey to bipartisan bickering and legislative standoffs, the state of our parks has diminished.

According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Ohio State Park system represents the third most visited state park system in the United States. A study done by OSU in 2004 estimates the Ohio State Park system generates close to $1.1 billion in annual revenue based on overnight and day visitation, but according to the same study, park fees and charges only cover roughly 42% of operating budgets. What's worse is that activist group Friends of Preservation of Ohio States Parks Association sites that more than $550 million is needed to address renovations in infrastructure and facility maintenance in state parks throughout Ohio. And the need is mounting.

In 2009, then Governor Ted Strickland assembled an interest group to address the problems facing the state park system. Proposed in the resulting report were measures to allocate between: "$26.8 million and $36.5 million per biennium" for deferred maintenance. But with more than $550 million in needs and rising inflation, it would take over six years just to play catch up, and by then interest and costs of raw materials would undoubtedly sky rocket. In less than four years spanning 2005 to 2009 when the report was released, estimated needs rose by more than 53% (up from $300 million to approximately $556 million). The report also mentions the "struggle" of the Ohio State Park system to reduce the amount of backlogged projects needing attention. It appears some things you can't ignore.
Photo taken from shows Ohio State Park worker removing graffiti from a park building.
The Friends of Preservation of Ohio State Parks Association claims that most state park buildings are past their prime, which spells absolute disaster fiscally. The website says that, in total, Ohio State Parks tout around 2,600 buildings, 80% of which are more than 20 years old, and of those 60% shows signs of dire need for repair.

In Jackson Township, just outside of North Canton, Ohio, a recent vote took place on May 7, 2013, for a levy initiative that would increase funding to the local parks department. In an article on on May 1, 2013, correspondent Donna Rovan reveals that the monies used to run the local parks and roads department comes out of a "general fund, which has lost $1.8 million a year due to cuts in state government funding."

The community of Jackson, while not wholly representative of the State of Ohio, still represents a microcosm of the cuts being made across the state. Line item after line item protecting and amending our state park system and allocating funds appropriately to cover expenses incurred by wear and tear and general maintenance continue to take backseat precedence, and, more often as of late, slash and burn treatment from local, state, and federal legislatures. Meanwhile, the state of our parks continues to decay, and at an alarming rate.

Last weekend I took a trip to Mt. Gilead State Park to enjoy the Memorial Day weekend with my cousin and a mutual friend. Our visit wasn't horrible by any means, but there was thing that did kind of catch us off guard. The Mt. Gilead State Park website operated by the Ohio State Park system claimed there were showers available on site. But, when we got there, there were no showers. Puzzling. We're not superficial people and a couple of days without showering wasn't going to make or break our trip, but we found it puzzling, indeed, that the website mentioned showers when there were clearly no showers to be found upon arrival.

In talking with a few of the regulars, who were out in droves to celebrate the holiday, we found out that an abandoned looking trailer sitting in the back of the park next to the latrines was, in fact, the shower house. So there were showers, the only problem was that the park lacked the funding enough to hook the showers up. They couldn't pay the utilities or the maintenance costs, so even though there were showers, no one could use them. They couldn't even afford to build the stairs needed to access the trailer, whose shower stalls sat four feet off the ground.

I think back on those days as a kid when I was in Indians Guides as part of the Comanche Tribe in the YMCA. Every year, all tribes would gather at Mohican State Park. Thousands of people from Tribes across Ohio would make the trek to Central Ohio. We would hold a Longhouse Ceremony and pass out colored feathers as rewards for good deeds and roast marshmallows and ask the Great Spirit, tongue-in-cheek, for blessing in the coming season. Some of those moments rank among the fondest I hold, even all these years later. It's trifling to think that, due to budget cuts and lack of funding, any, if not many, of these parks might meet their demise and deprive some young girl or boy the opportunity to have the same encouraging and inspiring experiences I did. But that is the state of our parks, and the choice to continue to let them falter is up to us.
Mt. Gilead State Park
(Lutz 2013)
No sympathy for Weekend Warrior…

If you or anyone you know would like to know more about what you can do to help preserve the Ohio State Park system, please use the following resources:

ODNR Ohio State Parks
Friends of Preservation of Ohio State Parks Association
One Ohio Now