State Parks Stressed by Rising Temps, More Visitors

(CN) – While much attention has been devoted to the deferred maintenance crisis at the country’s national parks, a new study indicates America’s state park system will likely face an existential crisis in the future due to spiking attendance and climate change.

The study published Monday by Utah State University says the future of state parks is endangered by funding cutbacks and a greater need for infrastructure maintenance, basic services to facilitate outdoor recreation and staff to prevent environmental harm to some of the most beautiful and pristine landscapes in the nation.

“Our results suggest a dire future for America’s state park systems,” wrote researchers from the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State. “If this trend continues into the future, state legislatures will face very difficult decisions about how to ensure their publics can continue to receive the social and cultural ecosystem services provided by parklands.”

Researchers Jordan Smith, Emily Wilkins and Yu-Fai Leung say rising temperatures from climate change mean state parks will see more visitors for longer periods throughout the year.

“Across most of the country, future climate change will result in a continued expansion of the high-use summer season, this expansion will be accompanied by increased operating costs,” the study says.

The costs are significant.

In 2017, states spent $2.59 billion to operate state parks across the nation – $170 million more than the entire operating budget for the National Park Service.

But as operating costs have swelled, funding has dwindled: In 2006, states allocated a total of $3.74 billion for state parks but just $2.59 billion in 2017. Meanwhile, the number of visitors to the more than 8,000 state parks and recreation areas has spiked by 25 percent since 1984.

Increased temperatures as a result of a changing climate will only further compound the problem according to the study.  

“Our investigation determined temperature, but not precipitation, is positively related with operating costs,” the study says. “Over the past 34 years, we estimate that for every 1% increase in annual mean temperature, America’s state park systems have seen an $11.51 increase in operating expenditures per acre.”

The prospect of hotter days – and more visitors – means more wear and tear on park infrastructure. It also means more staff hours to handle parking, clear trails, clean bathrooms and monitor the natural environment to ensure it isn’t being hurt by overflow or bad actors.

“Aggregating these costs across all 50 state park systems, we expect total operating expenditures between $6.99 billion and $9 billion by 2050,” the study says.

Add a continued spike in attendance to the cost of hotter days and it could cost states as much as $48 billion by 2050 to operate their parks. It’s important to note the study does not factor other expenses caused by climate change, including wildfires and damage from increasingly intense storm systems.

The figure is even more astronomical in an era where legislatures have slashed funding for parks. The researchers say this trend most likely means more entrance fees and peak-pricing schemes to increase revenue.

In the long term, states will have to get creative, possibly by taxing outdoor recreation equipment, getting help from the private sector, selling personalized license plates and entering into co-management arrangements with local communities.

“The future of America’s state park systems will depend upon the continued, and likely increased, support from state legislatures as well as management actions and policy solutions that generate funds that can be used specifically for the maintenance of existing infrastructure, facilities, and services,” the study says.

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