(This piece was originally published on October 16, 2017 by WTHR.)

At least once a week Daniel May, a pastor at Church on the Rock in Dillsboro, sits under a park shelter prepping passages for his sermon or hiking one of the many trails at Versailles State Park.

“My wife and I go to a state park every week,” said May. “That’s part of our day off thing.”

May, like hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers, finds solace in the rolling hills and winding trails of Versailles State Park.

Sitting on roughly 6,000 acres of land, Versailles State Park draws about a quarter of a million people per year. Maintaining Versailles, however, is not cheap, and provides an example of the funding challenges facing the park system across Indiana. They exist on limited state funds with a heavy reliance on user fees.

“It’s really no secret to anybody. Yeah, we could use more money to maintain our parks,” said Paul Sipples, property manager of Versailles State Park.

Twenty-eight state parks span Indiana. With the majority of their operating budget coming from user fees, they are 77 percent self-sufficient.

“A lot of these dollars that we do get go back into our budget with minimal support from the general fund,” said Sipples.

State parks and reservoirs are funded through the Department of Natural Resources, receiving about $9 million from the general fund, which are from tax dollars. The bulk of the budget comes from the special revenue fund, which is roughly $29 million from over the 2017-18 fiscal cycle.

The special revenue fund is generated through user fees and charges that come from camping, entrance, swimming pools, programs and other similar fees to use state park facilities, according to DNR Deputy Director Terry Coleman.

“This blended fund is then used to pay salaries and benefits, utilities, vehicle and equipment fuel, equipment purchases, cleaning supplies,” Coleman said in a statement. “All of those things necessary to support property operations and guest services.”.

Indiana is among only 17 states that rely primarily on user fees to fund state parks, according to the National Association of State Park Directors’ Annual Information Exchange. That puts Indiana in the company of Florida, Alabama and Wisconsin, among others.

Meanwhile, the public’s demand for the activities offered in state parks, such as hiking, boating and camping, have held steady or are rising, making them important for tourism and outdoor recreation.

“Sixteen million visit our state parks every year,” said Tim Maloney, senior policy director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

More help from the state’s general fund would allow for maintenance, building improvements and attractions that parks would like to act on, but don’t have the budget for, according to Sipples.

Maloney believes that this lack of funding is partly because lawmakers aren’t committed to the state park system.

“The budget has continued to be reduced even as the economy has improved, and as a result we have a backlog of need,” said Maloney.

However, some believe that it is hard to give a blanket statement and say that all state parks in Indiana across the board are underfunded.

“Some parks warrant more funding and receive more while others warrant less and receive less,” said Doug Noonan, a professor at IUPUI’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

There are state parks that require more money for upkeep, while others are more low maintenance.

Still, Noonan said, Indiana’s parks deserve financial support because they benefit all citizens and preserve natural and historic places.

State Rep. Sean Eberhart, chair of the committee of natural resources, said he believes that while our state parks are a little underfunded, they are one of the few departments that actually produce revenue, offsetting a good portion of the budget.

“I do believe that there are some improvements that we’d like to see and we just struggle to get some of those capital improvement dollars that we need to make those amenities even better,” said Eberhart, R-Shelby County.

However, even if elected officials wanted to provide the state park system with more money, there is not a simple solution.

One proposal includes seeking outside partners to provide financial support, but they come with a risk. Generating too much revenue could lead lawmakers to cut back funding from the general fund, Noonan said.

“Property managers are aware that the better they do on their own, the less support they might get from the state,” said Noonan.

Maloney said there is hope for change when it comes to increased funding, but there needs to be greater commitment by the state government to invest in natural resources because, simply put, state parks improve Indiana.

“They improve quality of life,” Maloney said.


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