September 13, 2013

Editorial | State parks are great resource; let’s keep them that way

The following editorial appeared Friday in the Florence Morning News:

The following editorial appeared Friday in the Florence Morning News:

Forty-seven parks and more than 80,000 acres of diverse Palmetto landscape make up the state’s parks system. The Upstate lays claim to more of a third of them, but there are still quite a few in our backyard worth exploring.

And they are easier to explore now, too. The South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism recently issued the first update to the state park brochure that has been published in 10 years courtesy of donations from Fuji Film and BMW.

Within a short drive a Florence, one can explore the fabulous fishing spots at Civilian Conservation Corps-built Cheraw and Lee state parks. For those who are still unsure of exactly what a Carolina bay is – they’re marshy, elliptical depressions – Woods Bay State Park in Olanta offers a view of one of the largest in the Atlantic Coastal Plain. If premium camping is your thing, Little Pee Dee State Park in Dillon has pristine spots by the bushel load.

(And let’s not forget Myrtle Beach State Park and Huntington Beach State Park on the Grand Strand)

In 2011, there were nearly 8 million visitors to the state parks – 400,000 stayed overnight – generating nearly $20 million in revenue.

The system has been a great resource for both South Carolinians and out-of-state visitors alike for more than 75 years. Our hope is that will continue for future generations, but we have lingering concerns.

Gov. Nikki Haley said she wanted to see the system – which cost about $24 million in 2011 to operate according to the director of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, which is leaving the system several million in the red – become self-sufficient by the end of this year.

There have been suggestions that revenue bonds be considered for capital projects to attract more guests, such as water features – two of the parks, Cheraw being one of them, already have golf courses.

We’re usually in favor of finding prudent ways to get off the government’s dole, but in this case, we are cautioned to say “not so fast.”

First, staffing at many of the parks is already thin. A new program guide is nice, but visitors also need that guide in person, someone telling them where to find the park’s best attractions. Short of greater reliance on gracious volunteers, we have trouble seeing how staff and, in some parks, maintenance can be improved upon in the self-sufficient plan.

There is also the state of some of our parks to consider. A 2011 evaluation of the state’s system found the parks have almost $155 million in deferred maintenance needs. Some of that maintenance – such as replacing the water and sewer systems at popular Table Rock park – is needed soon to avoid closure because of safety concerns.

Currently, about 83 percent of the money needed to operate the state’s parks is generated through admission fees, retail sales, programs and special events – prices of which have increased in recent years to adjust for market demand as well as steer the system toward Haley’s plan. In the Southeast, only Alabama does better in generating a higher percentage of the revenue at about 89 percent. North Carolina parks, which operates under that state’s environmental agency, do not charge admission fees, thus only about 20 percent of their budget comes through revenues.

We’re OK with South Carolina’s business model on state parks. Some do have free admission, and the charge at the bigger parks is far more reasonable for a family than most other excursions.

But we have worries if the system is dropped from the PRT, the dollars for maintenance, marketing and promotion that help keep the system upright will not be fully supplemented through revenue and alternative channels.

We fear the beauty of the state’s parks could decline right along with it.

That certainly was not the vision of the CCC.

And that’s not what we should want for future generations, either.

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