Photograph by Kent Nishimura, Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
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This year’s wildfires burned through California’s Big Basin Redwoods State Park in August. Most of the iconic redwoods survived, but historic structures in the park were destroyed.

Photograph by Kent Nishimura, Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

How will America’s state parks survive 2020?

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

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.

Active fires since September 11, 2020

NOTE: Data as of September 18, 2020. SOURCE: NATIONAL INTERAGENCY FIRE CENTER

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.

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The 2020 wildfires damaged structures including this trail bridge at Big Basin Redwoods State Park in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.

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.

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Visitors on June 11, 2020 enjoy LaSalle Canyon Falls in Illinois’ Starved Rock State Park. Like national parks, state parks have become havens for crowds during a pandemic-defined summer.

Keeping state parks clean and safe for visitors is expensive. While Americans have found solace from the pandemic in state parks, most probably don’t know that these oases operate on a patchwork of funding sources that have become increasingly vulnerable.

Most of the country’s 10,234 state parks are primarily funded by their respective state budgets, with the balance coming through a variety of mechanisms. In California, for instance, money for state parks comes from three sources: a general fund (which is tied to the state budget,) visitor use fees, and special funds. The latter can include rents paid by retailers within state parks or state boating tax revenues.

In rarer cases, such as California’s Crystal Cove or Maine’s Baxter State Park (home of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail), partial financing comes from private sources, such as development-focused conservancies or trust funds underwritten by wealthy benefactors. In theory, private support can allow state parks to withstand economic tremors like a recession or a pandemic.

Contributions from the federal government to state park operating budgets are minimal. In 2016, for example, federal funds accounted for just one percent of the state parks’ cumulative operating expenses. And while this year’s Great American Outdoors Act gives national parks a much-needed $10 billion over five years for the maintenance of facilities and infrastructure, none of those dollars are earmarked for state parks. However, state parks may find some help through the GAOA-supported Land and Waters Conservation Fund. Lewis Ledford, executive director of NASPD, notes via email that the fund can provide grants to state governments for maintenance-related projects in parks and public lands. But that’s far from a comprehensive solution.

Heading for austerity?

Hawaii’s state parks, which receive an average of nine million visitors each year, offer a troubling glimpse of the potential future. These parks are funded by a trifecta of state taxpayer dollars, revenue generated from park entry fees charged to out-of-state visitors, and a “transient accommodations tax” for tourists, which functions like a resort fee.

But with pandemic travel restrictions in place, Hawaii tourism has taken a nosedive since late winter. The state’s pre-arrivals testing program start date has been pushed back more than once, and Governor David Ige recently predicted that the current start date (October 1) will likely be punted into the fall. Even if Hawaii opens its doors to visitors tomorrow, the months-long lapse of funding means the Aloha State’s parks are in trouble.

“Our revenue derived from user fees went from $500,000 a month to essentially zero,” says Alan Carpenter, assistant administrator of Hawaii’s Division of State Parks. “Our parks have still been busy with visits from local residents, but they don’t pay entry fees. Those fees allow us to do things like trim coconut trees and pump septic systems—things that still have to happen. For the first three months of the pandemic, myself and my boss were closing the park gates.”

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A mother and daughter cross a creek in Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park in Kauai, Hawaii. Park entry fees charged to out-of-state visitors and a tourist tax help fund the Aloha State’s parks.

The challenges that Carpenter describes point to a looming catastrophe for state parks: additional funding cuts on top of revenue lost to reduced tourism. The coronavirus pandemic has strained state budgets. Dwindling tax revenue from multiple sectors plus unemployment, business closures, and the mounting cost of running public programs and facilities during the pandemic have pushed many state budgets to the limit. And since states can’t run an operating budget deficit like the federal government can, their options during a budget crisis are localized belt-tightening or fiscal intervention from Washington.

Those two choices—austerity or assistance—summarize the partisan divide that’s stalled the next round of pandemic aid. While House Democrats’ HEROES Act included $540 billion in funding for states, the Senate Republicans’ bill offered no relief. Meanwhile, states are in limbo, figuring out how to keep the lights on, even as money dries up.

Historically, parks are often among the first victims of austerity during times of economic turbulence, says Jayni Rasmussen, a senior campaign representative for Outdoor Alliance for Kids & Youth (OAK), an organization that works with the Sierra Club to offset costly park entrance fees for disadvantaged families.

“It’s just the standard that’s been set through past decades,” she says. “We’ve been sending letters to the Hill requesting provisions in the next stimulus bill that are going to benefit parks and park-adjacent nonprofits that help connect families to parks. Those partnerships are just hemorrhaging money right now.”

What states are doing

For now, most state parks remain open for business, but they’re running on borrowed time. Pending fiscal intervention from Congress, some states could limit access to their parks or even close them.

Pennsylvania is mulling visitor access fees for its parks—a marked departure from the state’s tradition of free park entry and, for some visitors, a financial barrier. New Jersey has already shuttered some of its state parks and wildlife management areas so that staff and resources can be funneled to the most-visited state parks. (Governor Phil Murphy’s 2021 fiscal year budget extracts $9.6 million from the state parks budget, according to a press release from the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club.)

In California, the state parks foundation has launched a campaign to dissuade lawmakers from slashing the parks’ budget to address the state’s growing budget deficit, made worse by the cost of fighting the ongoing wildfires.

“This has been a fiscally challenging year for everyone,” says Ledford. “In one state, the parks lost well over a million dollars in their ski operations run by parks because it was necessary to shut down in the spring, during one of the best spring skiing years in recent history. And to control crowds, their state parks had to limit parking all summer to 50 percent, reducing revenue by almost a million dollars on a $12 million budget.”

Left out in the cold

For Americans like Jill Higgins, the looming threat of austerity is making it tough to get through a pandemic with no end in sight. Before COVID-19, the Boston resident occasionally found time for hiking, while juggling duties as a union electrical apprentice, bartender, and part-time student. But these days, her state’s parks have become an important resource for weathering the health crisis.

Recalling “trees covered in tufts of vegetation and branches” and ribbon-like creeks that reminded her of a fairy land, Higgins says she fears the possibility of park access restrictions, and what that could mean for Americans like her seeking relief from the trauma of the pandemic.

“It would be awful for so many people if we lost access to state parks,” Higgins says. “I don’t have children, but watching families going to these parks with their kids and being present with each other—or just being there myself—was a reprieve from everything.”

Miles Howard covers outdoor and urban recreation for National Geographic, Boston Globe, VICE, NBC News, and Southwest: The Magazine. His latest book is Moon New England Hiking. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.