AL – Alabama parks see highest number of visitors in years

Weather, budget debate may have help

Alabama’s state parks, once threatened with closure due to budget cuts, are on track to have their busiest year since 2009, parks officials announced Tuesday.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources put out a call Tuesday afternoon for people to visit the parks this week, in hopes of topping the 5-million-visitor mark by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. The last time that happened was seven years ago, early in the recession.

Parks officials say warm and dry weather this year gave the public more days to effectively use parks in 2016. But the parks’ heightened visibility in the 2015 budget crisis also may have played a role.

“In the years before the recession, 2007 and 2008 and into 2009, we were over the five-million mark,” said Greg Lein, director of the state park system. “I believe we will cross that mark again this week.”

Parks became a poster child for Alabama’s budget crisis in 2015, when lawmakers faced a gap of more than $200 million in the state’s General Fund. State officials initially warned of closure of most of the state’s 22 parks if lawmakers didn’t pass hundreds of millions of dollars in tax increases.

Parks weren’t the only state service on the chopping block, but park fans drove a grassroots movement to keep them funded.

“We still want to make sure people are aware of threats to park funding,” said Phillip Darden, founder of Alabama State Parks Partners, an advocacy group that grew out of online protest of the proposed cuts.

By this time last year, lawmakers had patched the budget hole with a cigarette tax, and state officials expected closure of only five parks and raises in fees at the 17 that were still open. Parks officials on Tuesday said all five of the closed parks have since reopened with local money.

Lein said the park system had a delayed reaction to the Great Recession, with people still coming to state parks in 2009. Damage to Guntersville State Park in the April 27, 2011, tornado outbreak hurt the overall numbers. Then lawmakers diverted some of the park system’s money — the parks are mostly paid for by fees paid by visitors — to the ailing General Fund.

“After 2011 was when things really started to fall apart for us,” Lein said.

This year, parks officials said, parks were back in part because of warm weather and in part because of the lack of a natural disaster — including ice storms. Cheaha State Park, atop the state’s highest mountain, typically takes longer than the rest of the state to thaw out from winter storms.

Attempts to reach officials at Cheaha Tuesday afternoon were unsuccessful. Lein said he wasn’t sure about attendance there, but the other numbers at Cheaha look good.

“I believe they’re going to be in the black for the first time in years,” he said.

Like other parks, Cheaha raised its fees as a result of the budget crunch. The lodge at the park closed during weekdays in winter, another change that Lein said could have saved the park money.

Darden, the parks activist, said he’d be delighted if the debate over park funding did bring more people back to the natural green spaces. He said people are likely to see the parks in the news again soon. A political action committee affiliated with his group will soon buy ads in favor of Amendment 2, a statewide ballot measure that would block lawmakers from moving park money to any other purpose.

Lein said the increase in visitors should help parks with their money problems, by bringing in the fees that keep parks running.

“That’s one of our principal messages,” he said. “If you want to save the park system, use the park system.”

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