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Fate of parks still in question; Snow Canyon locally managed?

Published: Sunday, Dec. 18 2011 4:37 p.m. MST

Andrea Hanson, right, leads a group in a "Spirit Hike" in Snow Canyon State Park, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2002.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With the fate of Utah's 43 state parks still in question because of a desire to wean them from the taxpayer trough, an array of options are being dangled before public policymakers.

Possible park closures. Reduce or cease operations in the off-season. Fewer rangers or higher fees during peak visitation.

There's been some discussion of local governments that reap the benefits of parks in their backyards shouldering some of the costs — via manpower through local police patrols or something more extensive, such as assuming management.

Rep. Don Ipson, R-St. George, is pursuing that possibility for Snow Canyon State Park through a measure he hopes to run in the legislative session that begins in January.

It's a conversation starter, he stressed, and nothing more.

"I do not want this to be a hostile takeover," he said. "There's been no real foregone conclusions. We are in the preliminary discussions to see if it is something we could possibly make work."

Mike Styler, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, is open to discussions on how to make the parks run more efficiently. He has a $2.8 million threat — or carrot — hanging over the parks' division budget that was zapped in the last funding cycle, but then plugged back in as one-time money to see him through June.

Gov. Gary Herbert, in his 2013 fiscal year budget unveiled last week, is recommending restoration of the entire $2.8 million for parks.

"We are proving that unlike the federal government, Utah can manage our resources," he said. "We have reasons to keep the parks open, including the preservation of our state's wonderful heritage, culture and natural assets. Of course, we will continue to work with managers to make them more efficient operationally."

The catch is that only half that money is a permanent restoration for the coming budget year — another signal that the parks division must continue to scramble to become more fiscally self-sustaining.

"I believe we can provide a great parks system with that much general fund money," Styler said. "There are things that we can do. ... If we lost all $2.8 million, we'd be in a trouble."

For the last several years, the state parks division has seen its general fund allocations shaved dramatically by budget crafters as revenues have dried up amid tough financial times — reflective of a trend being duplicated at a number of states throughout the country. California, for example, has a list of 70 of its 278 state parks on target for closure and Arizona has already shuttered some.

No parks in Utah have had to close as of yet, but park employees were laid off and some positions went unfilled. Other revenue-boosting options such as instituting flexibility in the park fee schedule are on the table so the division has greater autonomy.

Snow Canyon State Park, according to fiscal year 2010 figures compiled in a recent legislative audit, is the second most frequented state park in Utah, attracting 322,446 reported visitors. In terms of what it spent and what it brought in that year, the park was among three in the "scenic" classification that turned a profit — with Snow Canyon bringing in 26 cents per visitor.

A number of recreational parks are in that same profit-turning category, with Bear Lake at the top of heap at a return of $2.75 per visitor. By comparison, all seven state parks classified as "heritage" parks for their cultural and history value recorded revenues far below what it cost to operate them. The worst offender was Edge of the Cedars at a loss of $30.12 per visitor, followed by the Territorial Statehouse at a per-visitor loss of $14.84.

The state's golf courses are subsidized heavily too, leading some to question why Utah is in the business of offering that leisure sport at its state parks.

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