After two decades of neglect, Utah's state parks are on the verge of collapse, from lack of funding to maintain roads, restrooms and other basic infrastructure.
"I give it two to five years," state parks official Roy Birrell said. "The day's coming soon when roads will be so bad visitors won't be able to get to certain state parks, and those that they will won't have safe water or toilets that flush or campgrounds that meet minimal standards."Birrell is not just any park ranger. He's a 25-year veteran and is southwest regional director for the Division of State Parks and Recreation. And he's retiring, he says, out of frustration.
While many within the state parks organization label Birrell's accusations sour grapes or gross exaggerations, Birrell responds: "If you don't believe me, go visit the state parks. They speak for themselves."
Birrell insists he is speaking out of love for state parks, which he says should be an asset to Utah tourism but are fast becoming a detriment.
"I'm bailing out because I can see the deterioration of the parks," he said. "Parks have been my life, my family. They are everything to me. And it tears me up inside to see what's happening to them, and the lack of recognition is mentally too difficult to deal with."
Birrell had particular harsh words for the Utah lawmakers, who he says have no vision as to the economic and tourism potential of state parks and who are content to let the state's almost four dozen parks fall into disrepair.
While the state has added several new state parks over the years, according to Birrell, little has been done to maintain Utah's existing state parks since then-Gov. Cal Rampton infused more than $13 million into state parks about 20 years ago. Maintenance since then has taken a "Band-Aid approach," he said.
Birrell said most parks have the original plumbing, and the low-quality parking lots haven't been repaved in just as long. He calls the restroom and camping facilities disgusting.
Birrell says almost every park in the southwestern part of the state needs major repairs. He rates Utah's state parks a three or four on a scale of 10, adding it would be worse if not for the resourcefulness of park employees in keeping things running.
How much would it take to bring Utah's parks up to an acceptable standard? Somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million to $20 million, he says.
But the political fact of the matter is education and social services will always rank higher on the legislative priority list than state parks. In the meantime, Birrell says visitors to Utah's state parks are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the facilities.
Instead of staying an extra day or two, they are moving on. And when they get home, they have little good to say about Utah's parks.
"Utah's parks are an incredible draw. And we use the national parks to market the state parks. But what happens if we have nothing to market?" he asks.
While agreeing that more maintenance needs to be done, state parks rangers do not all share Birrell's pessimistic attitude. Many accept the "chewing gum and baling wire" approach to park operations as a fact of life. One ranger even scrounged up donations for a new restroom and built it himself.
In the southwestern part of the state alone, trouble spots include:
- Coral Pink Sand Dunes, where the asphalt road has deteriorated to the point it soon may be impassable.
- Otter Creek State Park, where the pavement needs serious repairs and the water system is on the verge of failing.
- Iron Mission State Park, where potential museum exhibits lie deteriorating in a junk heap outside the museum.
- Snow Canyon State Park, which has 20-year-old plumbing serving about 275,000 people a year.
- Piute State Park, where the lack of restroom facilities has created a human waste problem that has drawn the attention of state and county health officials.