On an August afternoon in 2015, a rumble echoed from Alabama’s Monte Sano Mountain to the beaches of Gulf Shores. That rolling noise was Alabamians collectively booing the news that the legislature was threatening to close all state parks due to a budget crisis.
While Alabama state parks are popular, drawing 4.6 million people each year, they are in financial straits.
Each year, Alabama state parks are supposed to receive $3 million in tax revenue, which helps fund maintenance, park improvements and winter operations, when visitation drops and parks collect fewer user fees. However, the Great Recession crippled the Alabama state budget, and for the past five years lawmakers in Montgomery diverted the $3 million in tax money from the parks to address other budget deficits.
“With the loss of the tax money, there’s no cushion in our finances anymore,” said Greg Lein, director of Alabama State Parks.
Due in part to public pressure, the state legislature did not shut down all of the parks in the fall of 2015. However, park managers were still forced to shutter a handful of parks, alter operations at others, and institute new fees to shore up their budgets. When people plan trips to Alabama state parks this year, they’re going to notice some changes.
Alabama State Park Closures
The most drastic change has been the closure of Roland Cooper State Park in Camden, and Chickasaw State Park in Gallion. According to Lein, these were two of the state’s least profitable parks. In the past, they survived because successful parks were used to prop up those that struggled, but that’s no longer the case.
“Now, all of the parks must operate in the black,” Lein said.
In October 2015, Bladon Springs State Park in southwest Alabama also closed, though there is a process underway to reopen the park under the supervision of Choctaw County. In the fall, two additional parks closed, but they have since reopened under new management. Located on the Alabama-Florida state line along the Gulf Coast, Florala State Park is now owned and operated by the City of Florala, and its name has changed to Florala City Park.
Hugging the shore of a 100-acre lake north of Selma, Paul Grist State Park reopened under a deal where it’s still owned by the state, but it’s leased to Dallas County, which now manages and operates the park.
In some cases, parks will be closed for portions of the year when they see fewer visitors. Known for its massive cave and rock formations that are millions of years old, Rickwood Caverns was closed for the 2015/2016 fall and winter season, and it could also be closed for the upcoming fall and winter, said Lein. In Dothan, Blue Springs State Park was closed for fall and winter this year, and it might also shut down during the next cold season. Primarily known as a place to cool off in summer, the park has spring-fed pools that remain at 68 degrees Fahrenheit all year.
During the fall and winter, the Desoto State Park restaurant and the Cheaha Lodge & Restaurant will remain open, but they will operate only on weekends.
Due to budgets cuts, the state parks not only cut operating hours, but also reduced their workforce by 10 percent. As a result, Buck’s Pocket in northeast Alabama is now an unmanned state park, so the campground has closed, and the area is now for day-use only.
Increased User Fees
Unfortunately, the closures and operational changes couldn’t completely offset budget cuts, so state parks have also raised entrance fees by about $1.
Many people don’t realize that fees at the gate and other user fees are critical for state parks, Lein said. Each year, the parks are responsible for generating about $30 million of their $38 million annual budget. Because the parks receive only a few million dollars in tax revenue (when they actually get it), the majority of their money must come from other sources.
With their coffers depleted, some Alabama state parks also raised lodging rates by 8 percent this year. In addition, parks are implementing “resort fees,” which U.S. hotels typically charge to cover extra amenities, such as swimming pools and fitness centers. When you book a cabin or rent a banquet hall at an Alabama state park, you’ll pay an additional charge that’s equal to 3 percent of the original rate.
From 2014 to 2015, there was a 35 percent jump in the amount of resort fees that U.S. hotels collected. While Americans are now more accustomed to these charges, Lein said some budget-conscious people have balked at them and opted for less expensive destinations in other states.
“Many customers know our challenges, and they have been very supportive,” Lein said. “But we also get people from out of state who are not as familiar with what’s been happening, and they’ve found it harder to understand.”
More Changes in the Future?
Even with the increased fees, closures and cuts in the workforce, Lein said the future of the parks remains uncertain. If the government transfers another $3 million from the parks next year, more changes could be on the horizon.
“We just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Lein. “We’re in a very precarious position.”
Originally written for BCBS of AL.