News & Events

How will America’s state parks survive 2020?

Sep 19, 2020

In an unprecedented year of pandemic and natural disasters, cash-strapped state parks now face funding cutbacks.


PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 18, 2020

The closure of Yosemite National Park due to heavy smoke from the wildfires in California sparked national attention. But another story is smoldering in the state: 34 of its 300 state parks have had to shut down due to the fires, which have brought additional pressure on public spaces already straining under a surge of pandemic crowds.

California is experiencing its worst fire season ever, as firefighters continue to battle more than two dozen major fires that have killed 25 people and left scores more displaced. So far, this unprecedented year for wildfires has seen 3.3 million acres ravaged across the Golden State—a record-breaking 26 times more than the acreage lost to fire last year.

The flames have destroyed countless structures, including historic facilities in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest state park and home to iconic thousand-year-old redwoods. In August, Big Basin temporarily closed its gates; it’s unclear when the park will reopen.

In California and across the country, the combination of natural disaster, pandemic, and economic retrenchment against the threat of recession spell trouble for the future of state parks.

Pandemic pressures

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing numbers of Americans have been seeking relief from lockdowns by escaping to the great outdoors. As a result, national parks such as Yellowstone and Zion have experienced record-breaking visitation.

State parks are seeing surges in visitors, too. In June, Pennsylvania’s 121 state parks logged 6.6 million visitors, up from 5.6 million during the same month in 2019. New Mexico, Kansas, and West Virginia are among many states that have experienced similar surges. While it’s too soon to say how this year’s state parks visitation numbers will compare to the 759 million visits in recent years, early word suggests that pandemic-fueled visitation could break previous records.

These natural areas are appealing for a number of reasons, says Grady Spann, president of the National Association of State Park Directors (NASPD). “In a lot of our states, we want a state park within 100 miles of every citizen of the state,” notes Spann, who is also the director of Arkansas State Parks. “And very often, state parks are either free to visit or much more affordable [than national parks] with their entry fees, amenities, and camping facilities.”

But while abundant visitor traffic is great for the state parks’ profile, surges can test the limits of staff and resources. Among other impacts, increased foot traffic erodes trails and weakens boardwalks. In places like New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest and Washington’s Nolte State Park, a rise in visitors is leading to rampant littering. To help minimize the damage, Utah’s rangers in April started turning away visitors as early as 8 a.m. Similar scenes have played out in Colorado, Wyoming, North Carolina, and other states.

Full NatGeo article here