Beauty with a cost
For being such a pretty site, it’s not a pretty picture.
The picture being painted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials is looking rather dire.
For several months now, CPW discussions have centered on the uncertain future of the agency, hunting and fishing issues, and now, the future of Colorado’s 42 state parks.
It’s a simple issue: Money and more specifically, not enough of it to fund the future of the growing needs of the state parks.
At a recent public meeting in Grand Junction, one of several scheduled around the state, officials discussed the concern over funding the future of those 42 state parks.
CPW is virtually 100 percent user supporter with no tax dollars helping fund it.
Alan Martinez, manager of Highline Lake State Park west of Fruita, explained that even though Colorado State Parks and the Colorado Division of Wildlife were merged in 2011, the two divisions are still funded individually.
For example, no hunting and fishing license fees are directed to help fund state parks.
That means state parks rely on separate funding. CPW funding relies mostly on park entrance fees, camping fees, lottery and Great Outdoor Colorado funds.
The state parks have not received any state tax dollars since 2010. Martinez said they do get about 0.2 percent of funding from tax dollars, or about $150,000 a year.
“The reason for that is two years ago, the state Legislature passed a bill to give veterans access to state parks for free in the month of August, so that offsets the fees lost there,” Martinez said.
After the loss of tax dollars, a financial plan cut state parks’ full-time employees by 5 percent and the temporary workforce by 10 percent.
Prior to the meeting, Martinez said increased visitation continues to stretch their resources thin.
“We have an excellent product to offer and we welcome more visitation, but with more people enjoying our parks comes additional strain to this resource. We invite the public to provide input and help us find effective solutions,” he said in a press release.
He said that some of the needs facing state parks include road improvements, infrastructure, additional facilities and possibly more staffing.
Finding answers to long-term sustainability of state parks is the ultimate goal.
12 million visitors
The biggest challenge facing state parks today is the growing popularity of outdoor activities, which then leads to overcrowding at state parks. An estimated 12 million people visit Colorado state parks annually. Martinez said those visitors contribute close to $1 billion to Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy.
“Visitation keeps going up and that’s a problem, because we want to provide visitors the best experience we can,” Martinez said at the meeting.
Martinez said the last time park fees were increased was during the recession time of 2008 when fees went to $7 for a day pass and $70 for an annual pass, per vehicle.
In an effort to create more revenue, the Aspen Leaf program for users 64 and older was modified. At one time it was 50 percent off an annual pass but now it’s $10 off the annual pass.
In 2015, camping fees went up by $2 a night at state parks.
Martinez said a parks pass is “quite a deal” and compared it to the cost of going to a movie or going to an amusement park like Elitch Gardens in Denver, at a cost of $43 per person.
Another problem they’re facing, Martinez added, is that state parks remain busy more than just during the summertime.
“The parks are getting busier for longer amounts of time,” Martinez said. “We’re now hitting capacity in March and we have full camping through October now in some places.”
Almost every area of funding, from infrastructure to aging facilities, will be impacted when looking at a future filled with needs.
Flashing a photo of an elaborate, high-dollar massive recreation vehicle on the screen, Martinez explained that the modern camper has created the need for updated facilities.
“We have 30-amp sites, but 30 amps won’t run those kinds of rigs, so we have to put in 50-amp sites,” Martinez said.
He said that utility costs have risen as much as 70 percent over the past decade at some state parks.
The problems of an aging infrastructure and a growing number of outdoor enthusiasts presents a myriad of problems.
Higher construction and utility costs make updating visitor centers and rest-room facilities more difficult, Martinez said.
With a population increase of 2.5 million expected in Colorado by 2040, Martinez said there’s a major concern how the 42 state parks can handle that kind of growth.
“Right now, many parks are at capacity in the summer,” Martinez said.
With current budget restraints, there’s no conceivable plan to build new state parks in the near future, Martinez added.
The future of the commission?
Although no tax dollars come into CPW, politics and government will still have a major impact on the future of state parks.
Temporary employees make up a large part of CPW staff.
Martinez said the average pay for temporary workers is $10.43 an hour, which is about $4 less than the national parks average.
Paying a little less means securing more temporary workers.
But those salaries will be going up, thanks to the passage of Amendment 70 in this past election. By 2020, the minimum wage in Colorado will rise from $8.31 to $12 an hour.
Martinez said the state parks rely heavily on a volunteer workforce and those volunteers have helped make it possible for all 42 state parks to stay open year-round. Martinez added that no state parks have been closed down, which is not the case in some other nearby states.
But that could be case in the future.
Currently, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission has the authority to set park fees. The commission, which is a citizen board appointed by the governor, is facing an unclear future with the upcoming legislative session. If the Legislature doesn’t approve to keep the commission in place, it will become a more difficult process to raise parks fees.
Aquatic program in trouble
One area where budget restraints may have a fairly immediate impact is with the CPW’s highly successful Aquatic Nuisance Species inspection program.
“Colorado has the best program in the nation,” Martinez said.
The program inspects boats before they are allowed in state park lakes and reservoirs to make sure there is no invasive species than could be introduced into the those areas from the craft.
The CPW website offers the following description: ANS are invasive animals, plants, and disease-causing pathogens that are “out of place” in Colorado’s reservoirs, lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands. Because they are not native to Colorado habitats, they have no natural competitors and predators. Without these checks and balances, the invaders are able to reproduce rapidly and out-compete native species. Once introduced, most invasive species cannot be eradicated and cost billions of dollars to manage.
Martinez gave a Montana situation early this month as an example of what can happen without a good inspection program in place.
“In Montana, at Glacier (National Park), they shut off all bodies of water to users because the mussels got into the rivers,” he said. “Montana doesn’t have an ANS program.”
The invasive mussels were introduced into some Montana lakes, then migrated into rivers and streams.
CPW is facing a budget shortfall at the end of June 2017 that could end its ANS program.
The program was started and is currently funded by the 8 percent of its annual revenue that comes from severance taxes.
Earlier this year, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of BP America Production Co., thus requiring Colorado to refund millions of dollars in severance taxes to oil and gas interests.
According to a Denver Post story, the decision could have an estimated impact on state coffers of up to $100 million if other companies also seek severance tax refunds.
The ultimate impact on the ANS program will mean CPW must find another revenue stream to keep the program alive.
Martinez said they see a large number of boats come to Highline that have been to Lake Powell.
“Lake Powell is so infested, so to keep mussels out, we need the ANS program,” he said.
There’s a contingency plan based on a tier system if the funds don’t return, with the state parks that are considered at higher risk being the first to keep an ANS program.
The CPW is facing plenty of questions and decisions concerning the future of its funding.
Martinez said there is no timetable for any decisions on finding answers to its funding dilemma but he did say that it needs to happen quickly.
“We all need to be ready for a busy future at our state parks,” he said.