Are some of our most visited—and beloved—free public lands in danger of becoming closed or off-limits for our recreational use? ©Eric Rock

As wildlife seekers and nature enthusiasts, we tend to rank state and national parks high on our lists of favorite travel destinations. And with 6,624 state parks (the term state parks also includes designations such as state recreation areas, state beaches and state nature reserves), 41,725 miles of trails, 207,063 campsites, and 7,161 cabins and lodges across the nation in the state park system, access to wild and free public lands is available to just about everyone. In fact, more than 700 million of us visit a state park every year.

But a disturbing trend is afoot that could—taken to the extreme—make our state parks as we know them go extinct. In May 2012, California announced that it would be forced to close 70 of its 279 state parks by July due to budget cuts and the economic downturn. Other states have since announced their own lists of parks that could soon be closed due to lack of funds.

If this is happening to our state parks, will our national parks soon follow suit?

State parks: bringing in business

California’s state parks have been hit hard by budget cuts. What will this mean for national parks, such as Yosemite? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

With the help of local nonprofit organizations, such the Sempervirens Fund and the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, some of those 70 California state parks have been able to avoid closure—at least for a few more years. But the crisis is far from over. The state, which has chronic deficits, has slashed the parks department’s budget by more than $50 million over the past four years. And more than $1.3 billion in maintenance has been deferred. Campsites have become overgrown with weeds, and some buildings and roads have fallen into disrepair, rendering them unusable. California—and many other states—may have to find new, innovative ways to manage their public lands, and that may mean turning some operation functions over to private businesses.

Many for-profit corporations are already generating revenue for some state parks. When a climbing or rafting outfitter leads trips in a state park, for example, it pays the government a fee to do business there. But as these private businesses expand their offerings and take over a larger, more visible role in the day-to-day operations of the parks, the very meaning of “state park”—given to the public for free recreation—could change. “Free recreation” could soon have a price tag placed on it, or businesses could decide to close certain portions of the parks at will for their own cash-generating activities, such as for weddings or corporate parties.

Despite the recent discovery that for more than a decade the California Department of Parks and Recreation had failed to report $54 million stowed in special funds, the available portion of these monies will hardly chip away at the 1.3 billion in deferred maintenance projects statewide. This sad story is repeated all over the U.S.; the state budget for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, for instance, is half what it was 10 years ago.

As parklands become privatized, how will wildlife be affected? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

National parks: feeling the pinch

Following more than 10 years of scrimping and deferring maintenance projects, the strain is beginning to be felt at national parks, too. A 6 percent budget cut was absorbed in the past two years alone. For the past three years, New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument has lacked the money to hire a specialist to protect its archaeological ruins and resources; and Virginia and North Carolina’s 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, which curves along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, has a $385 million backlog of maintenance projects and has been unable to fill 75 vacant positions since 2003. In Yosemite National Park, projected budget cuts will most probably result in more trash on the trails, shorter hours at visitor centers, longer lines at information booths, fewer open campgrounds and fewer seasonal rangers.

The National Parks Conservation Association has started a campaign that points out that the U.S. National Park Service’s roughly $3 billion annual budget represents just a 14th of 1 percent of the entire federal budget and that slashing this minuscule amount even more could affect nearly 260,000 jobs across the country.

If the alternative to a closed national or state park is one that is open but operated by a private business, the second scenario may be the better option. We already know how much being outdoors benefits our mental and physical health and that of our children. If our state—and national—parks close, where will we go?

Do you think a larger private-business involvement in the operations of our state and national parks is an idea whose time has come? Is it the only viable way to save our parks from closure?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy