Clay Scofield: Here’s my plan so future generations enjoy our state parks

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Waterfall at Chewacla State Park new Auburn Alabama
Waterfall at Chewacla State Park in Auburn, AL.

Alabama’s State Parks are treasures that should be cherished and protected for future generations. Unfortunately, over the past few years, the parks system has suffered from multiple budget transfers to fund other General Fund agency shortfalls. I have a plan that will help to permanently fund our state parks and keep these God-given resources available for future generations.

Our state’s General Fund has faced great challenges the past few years in terms of identifying adequate funding for state services. To fill those shortfalls, funds were transferred from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the State Parks to fund other areas of government. Since 2012, $30 million has been transferred from the DCNR, and $15 million of this came directly from the parks system’s accounts.

I have a plan to stop this unfair practice of taking money directly from our parks to fund other areas of government. I’ve proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow citizens to vote this November to protect Alabama State Parks’ funding forever. This constitutional amendment would prohibit any further transfers from the parks system’s funds to the state’s General Fund. The people of Alabama deserve the opportunity to have a voice about the future of their State Parks.

Alabama State Parks have always operated on a slim budget and are unique. Unlike other state agencies, which receive appropriations from the state’s General Fund each year, state parks earn most of their own funds through guest fees. Unfortunately, millions of dollars made at the parks have been transferred to other state agencies over the past few years.

Half of the more than 4.5 million visitors to Alabama State Parks come from out of state. The parks provide an economic boost of more than $375 million, a significant return on investment compared with most other state agencies.

The Alabama State Parks System is also unique in the minimal support received from tax dollars. The parks generate more than $30 million from guest fees each year, which makes up 80 to 90 percent of the parks system’s annual budget. Other state parks systems in the Southeast, and across the country, receive considerable contributions from taxpayers.

In Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, state parks’ revenues account for only about 65 percent of the total cost of operating the parks. In Tennessee, less than 45 percent of the operating costs of the parks are made at the parks; the rest comes from tax dollars.

Other states heavily contribute to the success of their parks system with tax dollars. In Alabama, we take from the parks to fund other government agencies.

The continued loss of this revenue has caused our parks system to begin implementing emergency contingency plans across the state. What does that mean? To cut costs, the system has been forced to close five parks. There are now seasonal closures for facilities at a number of other parks, and one park has transitioned to day-use only and made other operational changes to save money. In addition, it is likely the fees for services already offered at our State Parks will have to be increased in the near future.

Again, this has not been caused by anything the State Parks are doing wrong or inefficiently. As a matter a fact, even after terrible natural disasters — such as Hurricane Ivan, which destroyed the state’s most profitable park on the Gulf Coast, or the tornadoes of 2012 that ripped through the campground at Guntersville — the parks’ staff and its supporters rallied to ensure the parks system continued to prosper even during these difficult times.

Like many Alabamians, I have spent countless hours making memories in our State Parks, and I want to ensure that all families in the state can continue this legacy.

I’ve always been amazed at the wide array of people who use and enjoy our parks. They are people of all interests and income levels – state residents and tourists alike.

It’s time we let the people of Alabama decide if our parks will be a priority. I have no doubt the outcome will be an overwhelming “Yes.” Before this measure can reach the citizens on the ballot in November, the Legislature must first vote in favor of this amendment to protect our parks funding.

Reach out to your local state representative and state senator and ask them to support this constitutional amendment.

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Clay Scofield is a state senator from Guntersville, Alabama. He represents the 9th district. He represents Blount, DeKalb, Madison and Marshall counties.

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