Unlike some states, hard economic times have not forced Utah to close or sell any of its 43 state parks. That does not mean, however, that the state isn't struggling to keep them open.
Utah already has laid off some workers. Its overall parks budget is roughly half what it was in 2009. Proposals are on the table to reduce hours in off-seasons, increase entrance fees or turn some of the costs over to local governments in close proximity to parks, given that they benefit the most from them economically. Also, one proposal being considered for the next legislative session would transfer ownership of all golf courses being run in connection with parks.
Each of these deserve serious consideration, but lawmakers also should take care to preserve the intent of the state park system. It was begun in 1957 to preserve areas of importance to the state's heritage, as well as to promote healthy recreation and preserve scenic areas.
The state ought to do a serious inventory of its parks system to consider the relative value of each one. An area's park designation should not necessarily be considered permanent. One of the first parks designated in 1957 was the site of the old state prison in Sugarhouse. That later was removed from the system.
However, state parks should not be judged solely on their ability to attract crowds. The old Territorial Capitol building in Fillmore lost $14.84 per visitor in 2010, and yet it is a priceless piece of Utah heritage whose importance to state history cannot be overstated. Of secondary importance is its value to the local economy, but this is a factor worth considering, as well. The state reported 20,562 visitors to the capitol in 2009, which is roughly 7,000 more than the population of Millard County. That generated much-needed sales tax revenue. In addition, the building served as a community gathering place.
Other parks are profitable. Bear Lake, for instance, showed a return of $2.75 per visitor in 2010.
Utah's budget has begun to show signs that it is regaining lost strength. Gov. Gary Herbert's budget proposal in advance of next month's legislative session predicts revenues approaching the previous high in 2008. The state, however, has many needs that were neglected during the recession. State parks shouldn't rank as high as education, public safety or social services on the list of priorities. They do serve a valuable purpose, however, and their funding should be restored as revenues allow.
Perhaps it would be prudent to let local governments absorb some of the costs for public safety or other aspects of park support, or to increase fees and reduce hours. But if an area or structure is deemed important enough to continue as a designated state park, it should be given the resources or the mechanism to ensure that it remains attractive enough to serve its purpose.