Nebraska’s state parks are treasures, but it costs more to maintain them than the $5 million-plus per year that the state collects in park permit sales.
Those and other user fees fund the bulk of day-to-day operations and upkeep. Not enough money is raised for large-scale repairs. About this, there is little disagreement.
Now, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission says its eight state parks, 10 historical state parks, 59 state recreational areas and two trails need $30 million in serious maintenance work.
These are bedrock needs like replacement toilets, power grids and roofs. The problem is serious enough that state parks officials say they will temporarily halt services and vehicle access at 24 state recreation areas and five state historical parks from fall to spring so they can redirect resources to help clear some of the maintenance backlog.
A likely debate in the next legislative session will address the best ways forward for the parks system on how to close the funding gap.
On this issue, Nebraska leaders need to hear from the breadth of Nebraskans, not just park visitors, since all Nebraskans own that parkland. Nebraskans must decide whether they want their parks heavily funded by user fees (and accept the compromises that requires) or whether parks funding should be spread more widely (and accept the costs of that choice).
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has already smartly prioritized its needs and park investments in discussions with the Legislature about its future. Parks leaders had to do much of this analysis and prioritization to survive lean years.
But it is up to the public to weigh in on potential solutions. Among the questions: Should more state parkland be transferred to county, city and philanthropic control? When the state loses $36 per visitor to parks like the Bowring Ranch State Historical Park, perhaps it’s time to consider changes.
It could be time to ruthlessly prioritize. That likely means spending money primarily on the parks that draw the most visitors, on those with the most natural and historic value and on those with the most potential to draw tourists. Of course, that means spending less, if anything, on others.
It could mean handing over more parks to local control. Local community leaders already have committed resources to keep some state recreation areas open, while others are working to provide staffing and funding to reinstate events this fall and winter.
Another question: What role should state general funds play in the future of state parks? Officials say the parks have seen a decline in general fund support as a portion of the parks budget, falling from about 80 percent in the 1990s to about 20 percent now.
This is a natural debate for the broader Legislature and a matter of budget priorities. A lot is competing for lawmakers’ attention and taxpayer funds, from prison reform to tax law changes.
That’s why it’s vital that parks officials prepare a clear, long-term financial plan to address the sorts of facilities life-cycle maintenance needs on an ongoing basis — with an understanding that the parks might require a state outlay to catch up.
Perhaps the parks commission will reconsider its annual passes. Charging less per visit but charging for every visit — perhaps $1 or $2 per visit — might raise more money without pricing visitors out of their parks. Such a move could have boosted the amount of entry fees the state collected last year from 9 million visits.
Some legislators hope to find an alternative funding source for the parks. One pending legislative bill would replace the park entry permit with a $7 charge on Nebraskans’ motor vehicle registration fee.
Lawmakers should view such funding suggestions with caution. Park funding as an add-on fee to something unrelated would leave many taxpayers confused and angry.
Such moves could ultimately erode public support for the parks.