Sac State study claims state parks pay for themselves

A team of researchers at Sacramento State University have released a new research numbers on Monday they say shows that the state parks system more than pays for itself by generating sales tax revenue.

In the face of a $24 billion budget deficit, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed cutting all $150 million in annual general fund money to the parks system. Under the administration's plan, 220 of the state's 279 parks would be closed for at least two years.

That could be a bad move, according to researchers at Sac State's Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration, which said that 75 million people visit California state parks annually. According to survey results taken from the fall of 2007 through this February, these visitors spend $4.3 billion in "park-related expenditures" each year. This money generates $300 million in sales tax revenue to state government. This includes $122 million in sales tax revenue each year generated by out of state visitors.

"You've got 80 percent of the state parks budget being picked up by non-Californians just in the generation of sales tax," said Dr. Anthony Sheppard, a professor in the Parks and Tourism Department.

Sheppard worked on the economic analysis portion of the study, which also involved five other professors and 33 students at three California State University campuses. It cost over half a million to produce, paid for by the California Parks and Recreation Department. All data was taken by in-person interviews with visitors at state parks. The full study will be released later this summer.

"I've never seen such high marks for a government service as I have on this study in terms of overall visitor satisfaction with state parks," said Dr. David Rolloff, the lead researcher on the study.

The study found that the average visitor spends $24.63 inside state parks, and another $33 outside coming to or from the park. While out-of-state visitors represent only 12 percent of park visits, they represent 38 percent if the spending, or nearly $1.7 billion. This is because they spent more than three times the average, $184.91 per person per visit.

Rolloff said the study was originally conceived as a way of generating basic information about state parks, long before the current budget crisis hit. The study, he said, is "the most significant social research effort" ever on the 150 year history of the state parks system.

Along the way, he said, gas prices spiked-a factor which actually seemed to lead to an increase in state park visits. The study has lasted well into the current economic crisis, he noted, indicating that park attendance is likely to remain strong-if the parks stay open.

"People were continuing to visit state parks, even when travel costs were very high," Rolloff said. "I think there is a lot of indication that people are choosing parks because they're near to home."

Lisa Page, a spokeswoman for the governor, defended the plan.

"To achieve the level of savings needed without borrowing or tax increases, there are so many places to look," Page said. "That has forced us to puts some cuts on the table that would have been unthinkable a few months ago."

Page noted that the 59 parks that are staying open have significant other sources of revenue, whether it is an agreement with local government of strong gate receipts that allow it to operate with little or no general revenue funds. She said that the administration is exploring public-private partnerships and other options that might allow additional parks to remain open.

When asked whether the cuts were likely to cause longer term damage to the economy and tax receipts, Page said "The Governor understands that there are very real consequences to these difficult cults. With a $24 billion deficit, there are no good options."

Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, a private non-profit that advocates for parks, said that public-private partnerships could only save some of the parks. She also expressed concerns about the idea.

"Public-private partnerships have been a hallmark of the California state parks system for its entire history," Goldstein said. "But what is referred to in the modern lexicon as ‘public-private' often means privatization."

She went on to call the closure plan "penny wise and pound foolish." Beyond the impacts to local economies, she said, shuttering the parks for two years, as called for in the plan, could create all sorts of other problems. Marijuana-growing, poaching and vandalism are already problems as state parks, and are certain to grow worse as supervision decreases. Many state parks also contain museums with valuable art, historic artifacts and other displays.

"They're going to lock the door, set the alarm and walk away for two years?" Goldstein asked. "It may cost us more money to reopen these places than it would have cost us to maintain them."

(Disclosure: Anthony Sheppard is the main contributor to The Capitol Weekly's movie column)

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