Our new Op-Ed on the state parks pinch published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Environment Missouri

By Ted Mathys and Susan Flader | Thursday, June 2, 2011

Summer is high time in Missouri’s state parks. But another legislative session has passed in Jefferson City with little action on a growing problem for our renowned system of state parks and historic sites. Our parks are saddled with a mounting backlog of more than $200 million in critically needed infrastructure improvements and rehabilitation projects, from aging water and electrical systems to cabins and bridges in need of repair.

State parks are what Missouri does best. On five occasions our parks have been ranked as one of the top four systems in the nation. Our parks are known for geological diversity, superb natural and cultural resources and sound management.

They provide critical habitat for many species of wildlife, from migrating bald eagles to rare cave creatures. With more than 140,000 acres of land, rivers and lakes, and 700 historic structures, our parks have something for everyone. They keep Missourians healthy and inquisitive and are natural learning labs for our kids. Our parks generate $700 million in annual economic activity for the state and host 17 million visitors each year.

Our leaders know the value of our parks. Gov. Jay Nixon has launched innovative initiatives, including the State Parks Youth Corps and the Children in Nature Challenge, to provide educational opportunities and jobs for young Missourians in our parks. But we also need to educate our state legislators about the unique financing structure and capital improvement needs in our state park system and call on them to tackle the rehabilitation projects before our parks slip further into disrepair.

Missouri state parks are funded primarily by a dedicated sales tax. Three-fourths of the park division revenue comes from the tax; the rest is made up of concession and camping fees, miscellaneous earnings, and occasional federal funds. The “Parks and Soils Tax” was approved by Missouri voters two decades ago and has been renewed at the ballot three times since, most recently in 2006 by an overwhelming 71 percent of the voters. The sales tax is very small; the average Missourian pays just $6 per year to support 85 state parks and historic sites.

In the 1990s, the Division of State Parks lost its general revenue funding from the state. Making matters worse, the parks tax follows the overall health of the economy, so the economic downturn in 2009 led to a loss of tax revenue, resulting in the elimination of 120 staff positions, or 20 percent of park staff. The park division is creative and runs a lean ship, so all parks are open and operating. Yet the current funding structure is unsustainable. Necessary infrastructure and capital improvements invariably get pushed back, and repair needs escalate.

Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared state parks and historic sites to be among America’s most endangered historic places, citing Missouri’s state parks as a prime example.

The historic Katy Trail needs $47.5 million in improvements to the trail surface, stressed bridges and aging culverts. Another $47.5 million is needed for improvements to dams, roads and trails across the park system. Water, wastewater and electrical systems at dozens of parks are on their last legs and need replacement, improvements that amount to $48.1 million. To put this in perspective, some of these sewer systems are as large as those of small Missouri municipalities.

Depression-era buildings and structures at Lake of the Ozarks and other parks need repairs totaling $26 million. And recreation facilities and exhibits across the park system have $35 million in backlogged repair needs.

Private philanthropy can’t plug holes this large, and increased federal funds probably are not forthcoming. The charge of fixing our parks falls on the Missouri Legislature. There are numerous policy measures that could make a dent in the infrastructure needs, but our legislators need to make this matter a priority next session.

This is not a partisan issue. Leaders in the Republican caucus should commit to putting our parks high on the agenda, and members of both parties surely can come together to preserve Missouri’s outdoor legacy for fishers, bikers, hikers, hunters, campers, city park visitors and, most of all, Missouri’s kids.

Ted Mathys is an advocate with Environment Missouri. Susan Flader is president of the Missouri Parks Association.