Facing continued funding issues and a backlog of maintenance, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is temporarily closing roughly one-third of the state recreation areas and half of the state’s historic sites for the next nine months. NET News spoke to Game and Parks Director Jim Douglas about the closures and plans to fund the system in the future.
NET News: Can you explain why are the parks being closed, and how we got to this point?
JIM DOUGLAS: All park facilities: roads, boat ramps, campgrounds, toilets, etc., and systems like electric have a lifecycle. In all of our park installations we’re constantly doing routine maintenance. But certain things wear out, need to be replaced or have major renovations. The amount of money it takes to complete these tasks on an aging park system has been beyond what we can cover. So there’s about a $30 million backlog of those items. And that will actually be increased because we’re still figuring out what the Americans with Disabilities Act provisions will require.
Jim Douglas became Nebraska Game and Parks director in March 2012. He’s been with the agency since 1974, previously serving as deputy director and wildlife division administrator. Douglas, a native of Illinois, has a Bachelor of Science degree in wildlife biology from the University of Montana and a Master of Arts in management from Bellevue University. (Photo courtesy of Nebraska Game and Parks)
NET News: How did you choose which sites to temporarily close?
JIM DOUGLAS: A primary purpose of this was to gather people from various parks into locations where they could work on projects. So we looked at where we could draw people from, combined with what the activities would be during that time of year when they’d be temporarily closed, and where we could establish work stations, along with the visitation during those months.
NET News: What kind of impact will this have on Nebraskans? These parks will remain open to foot traffic?
JIM DOUGLAS: The simplest way to think about it is, we won’t have services at these places that require our attention. So restrooms won’t be open, and most roadways require our attention, so therefore it’d be foot traffic. Visitors will be still be allowed walk-in activities such as picnicking, bank fishing, photography, wildlife viewing, hunting and trail use from sunrise to sunset. Visitors can park on the outside edges of the park area, but they will not be allowed to drive on the interior roads. A park permit will be required for each vehicle. Camping will not be allowed.
NET News: So you can hike in, or bike in?
JIM DOUGLAS: Yes, and they’ll be a lot of use of that nature. People hunt and fish, that activity will still be able to take place.
NET News: What has your agency done until now to this to reduce costs of the system with the $30 million backlog?
JIM DOUGLAS: We’ve decreased our overall expenses so we can devote more dollars to these deferred maintenance items, eliminating 42 positions within the park system. We’ve also reached out to other communities and subdivisions of government asking them if there are some parks and rec areas that they might be willing to help take care of or formally assume control of. So there’s been about eight areas that have been taken over by others.
NET News: Does that mean they’ve been privatized?
JIM DOUGLAS: The entities that I’m referred to are cities and counties, so privatizing probably wouldn’t be term I’d use, just transferring responsibilities to another unit of government.
NET News: A large portion of your budget comes from user fees. In 2012, passes for day and season park passes increased. How far did that go in addressing the problem?
JIM DOUGLAS: We’ve done some very thorough analysis of the condition and needs of our parks, and revenue sources. If we want to maintain an excellent park system like the one we have, we need to generate or receive an additional minimum of $4 million a year, closer to $5 million. Part of that is because this $30 million backlog is actually growing it about a $1 million a year. We appreciated the $5 increase in annual park permit, because it generated about $1 million a year. If we were going to make up $5 million a year, using current system of revenue and expenditures and relying on some level of general fund support, since we receive about $5.5 million from park entry annually, we’d essentially have to double the cost of that annual permit, from $25 to $50.
NET News: Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery put forth a bill last year to replace that system with a $7 fee on most state vehicles. The bill may come up again in next year’s legislative session. Is a bill like that necessary?
JIM DOUGLAS: Twenty or thirty years ago, of our total park budget, 80 percent came from general funds, from appropriations from the legislature. 20 percent came from user fees. Now that’s reversed. So we need to consider carefully what we do with pricing. The pathway Sen. Avery suggested has some advantages in a couple ways. I think we need to be creative; we need to decide some fundamental questions. Are we going to maintain primarily a user-fee system of funding parks? To what extent is the public in general willing to fund it through tax dollars?
NET News: Nebraska is definitely not the only state with a struggling state park system—most states around the country have also faced funding issues in recent years. What do you see as the path forward for Nebraska to continue having a viable state park system?
JIM DOUGLAS: I think we will be best placed for a good future for our park system if we have a combination of funding. What’s necessary is to have at least the majority of your funding be predictable and sustainable. I think the citizens of the state will have to decide whether they’re collectively willing to support a system beyond the extent they might use it themselves. So there’s a lot of decisions that it’s going to be up to the people of Nebraska to make.
State Recreation Areas that will close Sept. 16 and reopen May 1, 2014 are: Blue River, Cheyenne, Conestoga, Cottonwood, Dead Timber, DLD, Keller, Long Lake, Long Pine, North Loup, Olive Creek, Oliver Reservoir, Pelican Point, Riverview Marina, Rock Creek Lake, Sandy Channel, Schramm, Sutherland, Union Pacific, Verdon, Stagecoach, Walgren, and War Axe. Vehicle access to boat ramps will remain open at Riverview, Pelican Point and Sutherland’s Hershey Beach.
State Historical Parks that will close Sept. 16 and reopen May 1, 2014 are: Ash Hollow, Buffalo Bill, and Fort Hartsuff. The closure of Arbor Lodge SHP in Nebraska City will be delayed until Sept. 23, following the Applejack Festival, and will reopen April 23, 2014 for the Arbor Day celebration.
Fort Atkinson SHP and Alexandria SRA will close Oct. 7 and reopen May 1, 2014. This is to accommodate Fort Atkinson’s annual living history weekend Oct. 5-6.