Seeing the Forest

Tennessee's state parks are in trouble, on two counts. First, as was detailed in an excellent series of articles by Associated Press writer Marta Aldrich last week, the state park system is suffering from years of underfunding--trails are falling apart, lodges desperately need repairs, and lakes are filling with run-off sediment.

Second, Gov. Don Sundquist and some legislators--in a classic case of counting the trees but missing the forest--think the answer to the parks' problems is more development. Sundquist, who should maybe get out in the fresh air more, sees nothing wrong with turning some of Tennessee's most breathtaking and pristine reserves into manicured greenways and centers of commerce.

Fortunately, there are also some good ideas on the table. The question is whether there's enough political will, and enough public support, to push them through.

Tennessee's system includes 51 parks that cover 133,000 acres of woodlands, wetlands, and water. Anyone who's spent an afternoon at Fall Creek Falls, Big Ridge, or any of the other state grounds within driving distance of Knoxville can testify that they offer beautiful, accessible locales for hiking, fishing, swimming, and picnicking. They're also free, which is both a blessing and a bane. While the ideal of public lands open at no charge to everyone is laudable, it may not be realistic. Of the eight states surrounding Tennessee, six charge some form of entrance fee, ranging from 50 cents to four dollars. Although Tennessee parks do charge fees for cabin rentals, campsites, and other activities, those generate only about $23 million a year, about half of the parks' $44 million annual budget.

The rest comes from the notoriously fickle and doggedly political Legislature, which also has to worry about funding things like roads, schools, and prisons. With state revenues being as tight as they have the past few years, it's no wonder parks have ended up pretty far down most legislators' priority lists. Parks don't create jobs, reduce crime, or teach kids to read--at least not in any way that makes a good campaign slogan.

The best way to solve the problem is probably to take the parks out of the political realm. That's what Knoxville's own state Sen. Bud Gilbert has proposed in a bill pending before the Senate's Environment and Conservation Committee (which Gilbert happens to chair). The bill came out of a conference on state parks last year, where participants agreed the parks needed two things: an independent funding source and an independent governing board. Gilbert's bill would actually create the board first, a bipartisan commission modeled on the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. The board would then draw up a master plan that would include proposals for funding, most likely in the form of parking or entrance fees.

The bill makes sense--it's hard to imagine most visitors would mind chipping in a buck or two at the gate if they knew it was going directly to park maintenance. But it has one problem: "The governor's not for it," Gilbert says, "which makes it very difficult."

Sundquist apparently thinks the parks can be made to pay for themselves in other ways, most notably with the additions of golf courses and convention centers. Four of each are already under development at eight state parks. The idea is all wrong for a couple of reasons. First, it might not even work. Tennessee already has about 280 golf courses, and several big convention centers; how many more of either will the market support? Second, even if it did succeed in turning state parks into "golf destinations" for tourists or hobnob spots for conventioneers, is that really what they're supposed to be? Thirty million people already visit the parks each year, presumably for reasons other than putting or networking.

But Gilbert says the public fuss stirred up by the AP articles has made an impact on the governor's staff. He's confident some long-term assistance for the parks can be worked out, even if it doesn't take the form he has proposed, which he acknowledges is politically dicey.

"I don't know that a bill imposing a user fee could ever pass down here," he says. "So if they can come up with a [funding] source that's independent of a user fee, more power to them."

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