Greg Lein: Alabama parks face an uncertain future, for now all parks are open to enjoy

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In the wake of the announcement to close five state parks and cut services and hours at other parks around the state, there have been many questions asked about the future of our state parks and what citizens can do to help. The best way to support the parks is to get out and visit them! ALL of Alabama’s State Parks are still open to guests and we hope citizens will get out and visit them as our peak fall foliage viewing time arrives over the next few weeks around the state.

This week will be one of the last opportunities for many to visit these parks before they close. On October 15 the following parks will close their gates: Bladon Springs, Chickasaw, Paul Grist, Roland Cooper and Florala.

I want to be clear with the public that currently all parks are open. We are working diligently to formulate a plan for the future of the state parks system. Finding a long-term solution is difficult as the parks system is faced with an unprecedented situation. Over the past five years $15 million has been transferred from the parks’ budget to the general fund budget. There is difficulty in creating long- and short-term plans for the parks because there is so much uncertainty about the future of the parks’ funding.

The future of the parks becomes a philosophical question of value: Do Alabamians believe the state should operate and manage a parks system affordable to all? Or will financial constraints force the parks system to move to a model where only affluent citizens can afford a day hike at their local park? In the future, if the Legislature continually transfers funds from the state parks system’s coffers, our parks will continue to be forced to adjust services accordingly.

Our parks system has tightened its belt since 2012 when these transfers began. Despite seeing our money siphoned to other areas of government, we’ve been successful in helping our entire system thrive. For the first time in nearly two decades all facilities at the parks are operational, and we were able to have one of our best peak seasons ever this summer. Unfortunately, we’re now seeing nearly all of the revenue made off this record season transferred to the general fund.

The state parks system is just that, a system. Some parks, like Lake Guntersville and Gulf State, gross more than tenfold what smaller parks gross each year. All parks have benefitted from money spent at each and every park. The money goes to a fund shared by all parks, and the larger parks absorb the costs associated with parks slated to close across the state. With our funds depleted again, we’re not able to sustain this model and these smaller parks no longer have the necessary funding to operate.

Our parks have entered into many concessionaire agreements, where private businesses operate attractions at the parks, with the parks system receiving a portion of those revenues. Attracting and maintaining these concessionaire agreements will be difficult for the parks in the future, as no business wants to make a risky investment at a park that could close in a year, two years, maybe five years. These concessionaires have been important in growing our parks system by helping to attract guests. These attractions were a reason the parks had such a successful summer season.

As the leaves change and fall colors paint the state, I encourage you to visit your parks. Consider hosting a Thanksgiving picnic at one of our parks or braving the trails at one of the Halloween attractions offered at numerous parks. The future of the state parks system depends on the people who love the parks getting out and visiting them. We hope you’ll join us this fall at one of our beautiful state parks.

Greg Lein is the director of the Alabama State Parks.

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