Virginia’s state parks and preserve system has grown while operating budgets have been cut, leaving several new facilities understaffed.
Hugely popular bond issues approved by voters in 1992 and 2002 provided $214 million for new land and buildings, but tight state budgets brought few people on board to care for them, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch.
As a result, many natural wonders and historic buildings are not being adequately tended, state officials say.
The paper reported that Virginia doesn’t have the personnel to oversee three new state parks or manage the addition of 64 sites to Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield County. Also, a nature preserve in Virginia Beach had to shut down to the public because of insufficient staff.
“The system is overextended and underfunded,” said Joseph H. Maroon, director of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which runs the parks and preserves.
The Commission on the Future of Virginia’s Environment, a bipartisan General Assembly panel, recognized the problem in a 2002 report.
“While Virginia’s state parks contribute significantly to the state and local economies . . . they continue to be woefully underfunded,” the report said.
The panel recommended that the parks’ operating monies be increased by $20.5 million over two years.
That didn’t happen. State general funds for parks have gone up just $700,000 since 1995, to $10.7 million, park officials say.
The panel also endorsed park officials’ call to hire 112 more employees, but that didn’t happen either. The number of park workers has risen by 20 since 1995, to 194.
“Virginia ranks 50th out of 50 states in both the percentage of the state budget allocated to parks and the per-capita spending for state parks,” the panel said.
In 1992, Virginians voted 2-1 to issue $95 million in bonds – that is, borrow money – for four new parks and numerous campsites, cabins and other improvements. They voted in 2002, again 2-1, for $119 million in bonds for three parks, campsites and other amenities.
But without more operating money, Maroon said, “we are not sure how we are going to open some of those facilities.”
For example, the latest bond plans call for new parks in the central Shenandoah Valley, on the Middle Peninsula and along a river in Shenandoah County.
Maroon said the state will acquire the land, but “we won’t have the operating funds or staff to open the new state parks.”
Virginia has 34 parks, including four products of the 1992 bond issue – Wilderness Road in Lee County, Andy Guest in Warren County, James River in Buckingham County and Belle Isle in Lancaster County.
Park attendance has grown from 3.9 million people in 1992 to more than 7 million the past two years.
In 2002, Bill Small of the Virginia Campground Association spoke out against the proposed bond issue. Small said last week that he predicted the park-system expansion would require more workers.
“They are just pulling a major coup against the taxpayers,” Small said. “We tried to tell everyone, but we were a small voice in this thing.”
Now that the parks expansion is a done deal, however, the state should hire more people, he said. “We have no choice but to staff them properly so they are safe, secure and kept in good order.”