SALT LAKE CITY — Cracking pavement, faulty electrical wiring and dilapidated campgrounds.
This year, Utah State Parks is celebrating its 60th anniversary, but some of the wear and tear from decades of use is starting to show.
Gov. Gary Herbert is proposing a budgetary fix in 2018 for some of the parks system's more pressing ailments, recommending that $10.3 million in user-generated fees be directed for much-needed improvements and beefing up the newest park to come into the fold: Echo Reservoir.
The infusion of new money represents the biggest dollar investment in a single year to the state's fleet of 43 parks, said Fred Hayes, director of the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation.
"It's so exciting," he said. "We've been so focused on building that account up. Now it is time to start pulling from it and putting it on the ground."
Hayes said the money comes from a restricted account that draws its revenue from user fees at state parks — so it's park patrons themselves who are supporting the needed capital improvements.
"We get to invest it back into the system," he said. "This is our 60th year, and some of those campgrounds and facilities have outlived their useful life."
As an example, Hayes said there are some wiring issues that need to be addressed at one of the state's most popular parks — Antelope Island. In other areas, pavement is cracked or impacted by potholes, and restrooms badly need upgrades.
Operating on a mandate from lawmakers to run a self-sufficient operation, the state parks division has built up enough in its "savings account" to get some of the needs fulfilled.
Hayes said the parks division also plans to take several million dollars and make improvements to Rockport State Park and the newly acquired operations at Echo Reservoir, which had been under contract with a private operator under the purview of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The federal government will now partner with state parks at Echo, with Hayes adding he is hopeful the state can ultimately turn Echo-Rockport into a year-round recreational offering.
Herbert's recommendation of an extra $10 million for state parks comes as the system is experiencing double-digit increases in visitation from year to year. Hayes said parks overall enjoyed a 19 percent bump in visitors from fiscal year 2016 to 2017.
The extra money is also in stark contrast to cuts made in 2011 to the Utah State Parks' general operations, which was gutted of its general fund money by 79 percent over five years. No state parks had to close, but the division reduced staffing and combined operations at some parks.
As parks have streamlined operations and become more efficient at making money, the division's budget will top out at about $45 million this coming fiscal year.5 comments on this story
The recommended fiscal boost to Utah parks puts the state on a different trajectory than some of its colleagues around the country, where states like Iowa, Louisiana and Connecticut have struggled with park closure worries.
Herbert said the investment in Utah's state parks now makes sound financial sense given that visitation and the state's population continue to grow.
"Here in Utah our state parks rival national parks across the country," he said. "In these areas, people can experience all of the beauty of a national park, with none of the crowds."