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Editorial: State parks system merits a long-term investment

Oct. 22, 2013 @ 12:10 AM

West Virginia's "wild and wonderful" outdoor recreation assets are the cornerstone of the state's tourism industry.

The state has a few National Park Service facilities such as the Gauley River National Recreation Area, but it is the state park system that provides most of West Virginia's outdoor recreation opportunities. The network of 35 parks, seven forests, five wildlife management areas and two rail trails had more than 6.6 million visits last year, The Associated Press reported last week.

But the parks need more funds for upkeep and upgrading old facilities. Some park buildings date back to the Depression era, and other needs include power line improvements, new roofs, heating and air conditioning repairs and pavement resurfacing. Some parks also are still recovering from damage from last year's derecho and Superstorm Sandy. A legislative audit has recommended adding at least $3 million a year to make repairs and gradually address the maintenance backlog.

Many states are in the same boat, particularly in the wake of recession cutbacks. Some have dedicated revenue streams, but many rely on general fund appropriations that have been declining in recent years.

The funding for West Virginia parks comes from general revenue and lottery funds, along with the money the parks generate themselves from lodging and other fees. Ten of the state's parks have lodges or resort facilities that generate revenue, and along with other fees, the system generates about 55 percent of its $38.7 million budget. That is down from the 60 percent rate of a few years ago, but the West Virginia system remains one of the most self-sufficient park systems in the country.

That is despite not charging general park entry fees, which many states do. Lawmakers working on the issue hope they can keep that tradition going.

"I personally feel that we would want to exhaust lots of other potential avenues to address these issues that would be short of the entry fee option," state Sen. William Laird, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, told The AP.

While some targeted entry fees might be an option, experts advise some caution, because ramping up user fees too much can ultimately reduce park attendance.

Especially with lottery revenues on the decline, the state may need to look at other dedicated revenue streams for the parks. Various states have used a range of different sources from sales taxes to RV and ATV license fees to oil and gas revenues.

There is competition for all those funds, but failing to keep up these facilities would be shortsighted. The park system generates millions in tourism dollars and social benefits to residents, and it makes sense to invest in one of our greatest assets.

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