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OK Parks Facing Closure

Filed by Michael Cross in Feature, Local News, News.
September 16, 2011

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All seven state parks scheduled to close this summer due to budget cuts will remain open, many with the support of local governments.

Communities across the state are reacting differently to the added responsibility.

Along a dead straight expanse of Highway 23, the rolling hills of the Oklahoma Panhandle give way to wind swept sand dunes.

“We came out here to dove hunt, and thought ‘well, we’d kill two birds with one stone while we’re here.’ Do a little riding and do a little hunting.”

Roadrunners scurry as Shay Williams revs the engine of his ATV and races across the little slice of desert known as Beaver Dunes Park – formerly Beaver Dunes State Park.

That was before it was taken over by the small town of Beaver in mid-August.

The possible loss of seven Oklahoma parks reflects a national trend.

In California, 70 parks are set to close, and 23 Texas parks are cutting services, hours, and staff.

The Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation saw its budget cut by over 22 percent since 2009, and expects the transfers to save 700-thousand taxpayer dollars.

The state parks Director says the agency was left with little choice but to close some smaller or duplicate parks with relatively low attendance.

Now communities are scrambling to come up with the money to keep the parks open. J.C. Moser is the city administrator in Beaver.

“So far we’ve had to take 5-thousand dollars out of our public works to sustain the park. That gives money back to putting in water lines, putting in fire hydrants, putting in upgrades in our sewer system and trash hauling and stuff.”

He says the importance of Beaver Dunes to the local economy is worth a few adjustments to the town’s budget, and he’s actually happy the state no longer controls the park.

“I think it’s a plus for us to have local control over it. The full-time park ranger that we had out there moved away or resigned or something three years ago, and it was just going downhill, downhill, downhill. Certain parts of the park you couldn’t even use anymore it deteriorated so badly.”

At a local garden shop, Debbie and Joan sift through the variety of flowers and herbs, as a small child clings to one of their legs.

“Has it been closed? It was going to close. I think everybody’s happy with it open. Dang it, Johnny’s birthday was going to be there. Oh it’s still open. They saved it. Everybody used it. It brings a lot of out of town and out of state people in for the businesses. Go to the hospital, they’ll tell you about all the accidents with the kids. It keeps it open.”

Beaver Dunes only costs about 60-thousand dollars per year to operate, and it’s in western Oklahoma, where taxes from the energy industry blunted the effects of the economic downturn.

In eastern Oklahoma, oil and gas money is more rare, unemployment is higher, and city budgets are tighter.

The City of Sallisaw recently took control of Brushy Lake. City manager Bill Baker says reductions in park services and fewer employees are brining the park’s nearly quarter of a million dollar annual cost down, but running the park is about a 70-thousand dollar annual burden Sallisaw would rather not shoulder.

“Well it’s a negative in that we could have used that money for other things. I mean, to make improvements – other improvements maybe to salaries and benefits for employees, or we may could’ve bought some equipment that we didn’t include in the budget. You know, 70-thousand dollars would’ve bought two police cars.”

Baker says he knows tough choices had to be made at the state level to deal with the budget crisis, but joins Beaver officials in criticizing the tourism and recreation department for failing to seek more local input into the decision to close parks.

“We, at least myself personally, heard about this in the newspaper. So we kind of felt like the state was pulling out of this and just leaving us holding the bag. And our budget is obviously very tight also.”

In our next report, StateImpact Oklahoma looks at how American Indian tribes are working to save state parks.

See more at State Impact Oklahoma

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