Referendum to Expand State Park System

Referendum to Expand State Park System

But general fund allocations still need to be increased, say environmentalists, park staff.

There is a lot David Stapleton could do with $730,000.

Stapleton, the assistant park manager for Mason Neck State Park in southern Fairfax County, would benefit from almost three-quarters of a million dollars if voters approve a bond referendum for state parks, slated to go on the ballot this fall.

"It would mean a new office administrative complex," he said. The park is currently managed out of offices in two trailers. Two new staff residences would also be built. For now, staff members who are required to live in the park live in trailers.

"The staff has been working from these office trailers for years," he said. "This bond issue will help us address the need for permanent office facilities."

<b>DURING THIS YEAR’S</b> session, the General Assembly authorized a $119 million state park bond referendum to address the park system’s expanding needs. The money will be used for land acquisition, for construction projects on park facilities and to control shoreline erosion. A new Northern Virginia park, to be named "Widewater," is tentatively planned along the Potomac River in Stafford County, according to Joe Elton, director of the state park system for Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

In a 2001 poll conducted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land, 96 percent of respondents said that Virginians ought to preserve more land for future generations.

But Virginia also ranks last in the country in terms of percentage of general fund revenue it allocates to its state parks. The Commonwealth ranks 49th in terms of acreage per capita.

"We are the most frugally operated park system in America," said Elton.

Last year, state parks received $12 million from the state and collected an additional $7 million in fees.

It is not likely that general fund allocations to the park system will increase anytime soon because of the current budget crisis, said Del. Vincent Callahan (R-34), chair of the House Appropriations Committee. In light of that, Callahan said, passing the bond referendum is critical.

"We want to upgrade and that’s why this thing is so important," he said.

<b>BUT CALLAHAN</b> said the fact that Virginia ranks 49th out of 50 in acreage per capita is OK, because of the presence of many national parks and national forests in Virginia.

"I’ve never heard the complaint that we don’t have enough recreation space in Virginia," he said.

Despite the awards and the presence of national parkland, the state park system could be considerably improved, said Nicole Rovner, director of government relations at the Nature Conservancy’s Virginia chapter.

"I don’t think that we have a national park system takes away from the fact that we need state parks," she said. "The General Assembly needs to do a better job funding natural conservation generally."

"The bond program has more to do with the ongoing development of the system than it does in terms of operations and maintenance funding," Elton said.

Gov. Mark Warner (D) has repeatedly stated his support for the bond referendum.

<b>THE NUMBER OF VISITORS</b> to state parks has increased steadily over the years, going from 3.8 million in 1991 to 7.1 million last year. An estimated 40 percent of those visitors come from outside Virginia. Last year’s visitors are also thought to have pumped a total of $144 million into the state’s economy.

"We recognize that we play a major role in tourism for Virginia," said Elton. "This [bond issue] could help keep pace with it."

The increased operations and maintenance costs are covered by an increase in park fees which went into effect in April.

<b>SEVERAL NATIONAL</b> conservation groups have commended Virginia state parks. In 1994, the Nature Conservancy recognized the state's natural heritage program as the best in the Western Hemisphere. The National Sporting Goods Association's Sports Foundation Inc. awarded the park system its 2001-2003 national gold medal.

Rovner noted that the expanded park system envisioned in the bond referendum will require a higher operations and maintenance budget. After the last state park bond issue in 1992, the DCR had difficulty keeping up with day-to-day operations because the General Assembly did not increase general fund allocations to take into account the expanded park system, she said.

"The fee increase has the effect of having our park users offset some of the operational costs," said Elton.

Elton also called for more general fund allocations to the park system. "We’ve earned an increase," he said, pointing to a study conducted last year which recommended reviewing state park funding.

"It has to change; you can only stretch so thin," he said, noting that "Virginia is very fortunate to have a dedicated park staff that has distinguished itself."

<b>THE PROPOSED BOND ISSUE</b> is a recognition of the fact that land must be acquired now in order to preserve it from the rapid growth of development, according to Del. Kenneth Plum (D-36), who sits on the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee. "The bond issue should not be viewed as a substitute for increased allocations," he said. Parks are a "low priority" for the cash-strapped general fund, he added.

During the boom years of the 1990s, the state park system was denied an increase in state dollars because there was little will in the governors’ administrations to fund conservation, Plum said.

"I think it’s changed now from the fact that we are reaching a critical juncture with the rapid growth and development of the state," he said. "These are social investments."