State parks juggle funding cuts, new fees

VEGA STATE PARK — Ten years ago, the Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation received more than 25 percent of its annual budget from general funds (state tax and income dollars).

Starting July 1, with the state facing a budget crunch, that amount goes to zero, a loss anticipated to reach $3.3 million, while parks’ share of severance fees also gets slashed.

Funding for state parks historically has come from user fees, tax dollars, oil and gas severance fees and GOCO and lottery funds (about 37 percent).

Budget cuts mean fewer staff while regular maintenance and upkeep projects formerly taken for granted are now downlisted until absolutely needed.

But state parks shares the same reality everyone faces: income not keeping pace with rising costs.

There certainly isn’t a shortage of visitors to Colorado parks, which last year hosted approximately 12.3 million residents and nonresidents.

Vega State Park on Grand Mesa saw 181,283 visitors in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, and contributed an estimated $8 million in economic impact to the area.

The disappearance of tax dollars means higher user fees but state parks also faces the conundrum of having users pay but not pay too much.

“We don’t want to price out those people who rely on state parks for outdoors recreation,” said Vega State Park manager Bob Miller, who began his career with Colorado State Parks in 1985 after spending two seasons as a summer intern. “I’ve already heard a lot of complaints about the new fees for seniors.”

As of June 30, the Aspen Leaf annual pass (for those 64 and older) jumps from $35 to $80 while the lifetime pass goes from $175 to $300.

“I know of some folks who are saying they won’t come back when the fees go up, they can’t afford it,” he said, glumly.

Again, volunteers, ranging from campground hosts to visitor services, often come to the rescue.

Last year, more than 3,600 volunteers pitched in on 57 Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado projects around the state, donating 24,411 hours valued at more than $500,000, according to Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado.

Vega had 28 volunteers last year, contributing more than 4,200 hours.

Still, operating costs ($442,000) were more than double revenue ($220,000).

Statewide, in 2010 volunteers donated 208,607 hours to state parks, the equivalent of 100 full-time staff and $4.4 million.


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