Publisher’s Column: Demand Better

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Lawmakers seem to have forgotten Alabama’s state parks were not meant to be profit centers, but were created to preserve natural resources and for the enjoyment of the public.

by RANDY GRIDER

There is only one way to say it – the Alabama Legislature and Gov. Robert Bentley failed us.

This year’s budget crisis dominated most of the regular session and spawned not one, but two special sessions. When the entire episode was finally over, and everyone went home, we were left with a budget that once again affected our treasured state parks in a negative way. Smaller parks announced shutdowns, and hours and staffing are being cut at other parks around the state. Some parks have had to implement higher fees to try to make up the $3 million transferred from the parks to the General Fund. The robbing of Peter to pay Paul has been an ongoing trend for several years.

In our coverage area, Buck’s Pocket State Park announced the closing of its campground and will be an unmanned, day-use park going forward. Desoto State Park is reducing restaurant hours at its lodge during the winter months.

I understand Alabama’s lawmakers had to make tough decisions, but their actions didn’t leave the state better moving forward – actually just the opposite. Some of Alabama’s representatives and senators are supporters of this magazine, and this is not an indictment against any individual but against the Legislature as a whole. The people of Alabama put their faith in lawmakers to guarantee a better future, while at the same time protecting valuable public interests.

In October, AL.com ran a story about the closing of Roland Cooper State Park in Wilcox County. The story centered around Sharon Dailey, a park employee who after 12 years was facing the loss of her job.

“The state parks shouldn’t have any place in politics, and the people of Alabama will suffer,” she said. “They’re here for the people to use and to protect and safeguard our lands and natural resources. It’s just so sad we’re losing them.”

State Parks Director Greg Lein told AL.com that state parks were never intended to create revenue for the state or otherwise. “The state park system was never designed to make any profits,” he said. “That’s what makes it so tough to swallow for these employees, I think. None of this is their fault at all. They were just caught in an unfortunate situation.”

Lawmakers don’t seem to grasp the big picture. In addition to those losing their livelihoods – those people tied directly to the parks – there is much more at stake.

Some parks where entrance had been free are beginning to charge fees. Lake Guntersville announced in November that it is implementing a $5 per person gate entrance fee ($2 for children, seniors and the disabled), and some others are following suit to try to stay afloat. These increases will make it difficult, if not impossible, for poorer residents and their families to visit their own parks.

And yes, they are their parks; some action groups and coalitions like Alabama State Park Partners have been using the apropos tagline – “We Are Our Parks.”

If higher fees and reduced amenities result in fewer people visiting the parks, there will be a far-reaching ripple effect on both the parks themselves and surrounding communities that depend on the financial health of the parks.

In the Lookout Mountain region, towns like Mentone, Fort Payne, Guntersville, Scottsboro and many others see residual effects from visitors to the parks. They count on them.

The entire situation makes me mad and sad at the same time. I have seen nothing from the state in the way of a plan to generate more revenue in the future so the parks can at least get back to even footing. Truthfully, the state needs to go beyond just “getting by” – it needs to think about what’s best for the long term.

If you are a resident of Alabama, we encourage you to call your representatives and let them know how you feel about your state parks. If you are from another state and are a frequent – or even an occasional visitor – to Alabama state parks, we appreciate your support also. Your voices as a whole carry a lot of weight. (We also need you to continue to visit and enjoy Alabama’s state parks, above all.)

We can respectfully let Alabama leaders know that we not only expect more when it comes to public lands and natural resources – we demand better.