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Utah Legislature: Lawmakers explore idea of privatizing state parks

Bob Frisley and his daughter, Emily, tour Anasazi State Park in Boulder, Garfield County.
Bob Frisley and his daughter, Emily, tour Anasazi State Park in Boulder, Garfield County.
Kristin Nichols, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah lawmakers look to reduce spending even more in the future, they have some state parks on a possible chopping block as they explore the idea of privatizing them.

A list of six possible candidates will be drafted by an internal audit committee and presented to lawmakers this summer for potential consideration.

The step is similar, but not as drastic, as those being taken by other states around the country where bleeding budgets are forcing unpopular decisions.

Last month, the largest closure of state parks in the nation began in Arizona, and in California, 278 parks face being shut down.

Natural resource officials and the state parks board say they want to cut costs and make more money, but it also boils down to a philosophical debate.

If parks are priced high enough to generate revenue, what risk is there that the public is priced out of visiting some of Utah's natural and historical wonders? What price tag, too, do you put on natural heritage, quality of life and the preservation of Utah's history?

"If you price them high enough to make a profit, that is not the purpose of state parks," said Mary Tullius, director of the State Parks and Recreation Division. "Making a profit was never the intent when the state park system was created. We're trying to find innovative ways to help parks pay their way, but a lot of parks can't."

Rep. Kerry Gibson, R-Ogden, said state money managers are being faced with a lot of tough decisions.

"Are there particular parks that we should look at specifically that don't fit within our mission?" Gibson asked.

"They all fit within our mission," Tullius replied during a committee meeting on the issue. "Take our heritage parks out there," she added, pointing to places like the Territorial Statehouse in Fillmore or the Anasazi State Park.

Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, was blunt with lawmakers.

"Some of these will not ever be self-sustaining, but it does not mean they are not worth taking care of," Styler said. "Some of them are critical to our pioneer heritage."

At the same time, the department is embracing ways to be more innovative and businesslike in trying to meet the needs of park patrons, he said, including exploring dry docks for boats at some reservoirs, installing electrical hookups at new parks and even tapping into Internet connections for recreational vehicle enthusiasts.

"We want to be independent," Styler said. "We want to look for revenue opportunities."

Utah's 43 state parks have a $31 million operating budget, $10 million of which comes from the state's general fund, while a variety of sources such as boat registrations and park fees make up the rest.

State parks operate within budget right now, but officials are keenly aware that their budget is an easy target compared with cutting services to public education or the state's neediest programs like Medicaid, foster care and those that serve people with disabilities.

Committee members said they want to tap the advice of Ellis Ivory, who heads the board of trustees of the foundation that runs This Is the Place Heritage Park. In 1998, the park became the state's first and only "privatized" state park, run by contract with the foundation that gets an annual allocation of $800,000 from the state.

While that is quite a chunk of change, Ivory stressed that the park's yearly operation and maintenance costs hover between $2 million and $3 million, a cost the state would be forced to swallow otherwise.

He said he believes the idea of privatizing certain parks is worth exploring, but he cautioned that expectations have to be realistic.

"If anybody thinks they are going to privatize them and go make money, they're crazy," Ivory said. "The idea that someone comes in and can operate a park like a business and earn enough income to make a living is not likely."

The benefits of privatizing, rather, come from increased flexibility in terms of soliciting donations and how the park is managed.

Because This Is the Place Heritage Park is run by a private, nonprofit foundation, it can collect charitable contributions. By contrast, taxpayers typically feel they already pay too much in taxes, so Ivory said that scenario has greater challenges. The foundation also allows the park to make greater use of volunteers to help offset costs.

Ivory did stress that Utah's politicians would be ill-advised to follow the lead of other states and begin shutting down parks.

Ivory said that would be disastrous to Utah's tourism industry (parks generate $69 million annually in tourist dollars) and a nightmare for lawmakers.

"The park system is a plus for our state," he said. "I think it is a good place to put tax money because we get a good return. States that are shutting them down are damaged greatly by lost tourism, and politicians who do that are going to pay the price with the electorate."