SALT LAKE CITY — A committee of lawmakers heard pleas by county officials and state park advocates to back off more budget cuts that would ultimately close of some of Utah's 43 state parks.
It was clear by the Wednesday testimony before the Natural Resources interim committee, however, that there are no easy fixes to the problem of continuing to keep parks open as overall state budget dollars are expected to shrink.
Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources that oversees the state parks division, said $3 million in cuts already have the department operating "mean and lean," and any further slashes would leave it "emaciated."
He urged lawmakers to grant the division the flexibility of fee hikes for campgrounds or other measures so it can operate more like a business.
"Let us be a Marriott," he said, referring to the hotel chain and pointing out that weekend rates or holiday rates are often higher in the hotel industry.
At issue is the pending elimination of $2.8 million in one-time funding unless lawmakers in the next budget year opt to restore it permanently — a decision that won't be settled until the next legislative session in January.
A number of options were explored during the hearing, many offered up by county officials and waterways advocates who said preserving the state's natural treasures can be a money maker under the right circumstances at the right parks.
Mel Terry, economic development director for Piute County, said the two state parks in his county have the potential to be winter wonderlands but only operate on a seasonal basis. In addition, he'd like local food vendors to be able to tap into the concessions market, but he said he's been stymied by bureaucratic red tape.
Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee said state parks serve a vital function to stimulate local economies, but local government — just as state government — is in the same financial stress and can't take on the responsibility of managing them.
The state parks' importance, though, go beyond local economic impacts to often depicting history for all to enjoy, McKee said.
"Our dinosaurs, our fossils, represent hundreds of millions of years of history."
Locals, too, complained that cutbacks in law enforcement at state parks have the potential to leave the public feeling unsafe and the task thrust upon remaining state park rangers is untenable.
"There are two officers for 2,000 miles of shoreline," said San Juan County Commission Chairman Phil Lyman.
Privatizing has been batted about as an option, but even the legislative audit so critical of state parks being subsidized pointed out that it has never proven to be a success elsewhere in the country.
Other bureaucratic headaches persist in options such as transferring ownership of the parks to the counties, even if a local entity is willing to take it on.
The Minersville Park — transferred to Beaver County — required congressional legislation and four years to accomplish.
Some parks, too, have value beyond the bottom line, said committee member Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake, pointing to the rich cultural heritage found at Edge of the Cedars, which also serves as a federal repository for artifacts.
"It is without a doubt one of the finest museums in the Southwest in terms of putting together the history of the people who lived in the area for thousands of years," he said. "We have a sacred obligation to treat that history with the greatest respect."
Sanpete County Commissioner Claudia Jarrett said closure of the Palisade State Park would be devastating to her county and highly ironic given the circumstances.
"That golf course was built by Sanpete County and gifted to the state," she said. "I just think that would be awful to take a gift like that and unfund it and give it away."