By Bruce Schreiner
West Virginia’s expansive system of state parks draws big crowds looking to unwind or play in its mountains, rivers and lakes, but the eye-catching scenery is mixed with structures showing signs of decline.
State lawmakers preparing for the 2014 legislative session are looking at funding options for the upkeep of a network of 35 parks, seven forests, five wildlife management areas and two rail trails that attracted more than 6.6 million visits last year.
One option that a top lawmaker would like to avoid is assessing a fee to enter the state parks.
The parks are an economic force, generating $127 million of economic activity. The outdoor activities including hiking and biking let West Virginians work up a sweat in a state struggling with one of the nation’s highest obesity rates.
Nearly 200 of the park system’s almost 1,500 buildings are 75 years or older, Depression-era structures included in the backlog of needed repairs. A legislative audit recommended infusing at least $3 million each year for major repairs to chip away at maintenance and renovations that total tens of millions of dollars.
Democratic Sen. William Laird, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, sees free entry to the parks as a tradition that deserves to be honored. West Virginia is among a few states that don’t charge an entrance fee to state parks.
“It’s a way to give something back to the people in the form of recreational activities that might not otherwise be available to the people,” Laird, the Senate majority whip, said in a recent interview. “I personally feel that we would want to exhaust lots of other potential avenues to address these issues that would be short of the entry fee option.”
The parks do charge for staying at their lodges, cabins and campsites. Overnight visitors last year totaled 800,000.
Chelsea Ruby, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Commerce, whose responsibilities include the parks system, said the lack of an entry fee is “a policy we’re proud of and it’s wonderful for our visitors.”
“But it means we forgo a major funding source available to state parks in most of the rest of the country.”
As a result, West Virginia park officials operate tight budgets that have caused needed repairs and maintenance to pile up, she said. Parks are in need of power line upgrades, new roofs, heating and air conditioning repairs and pavement resurfacing, she said.
Two powerful storms last year — a summer windstorm and an autumn snowstorm from Superstorm Sandy — caused widespread damage at parks that added to the list of needed repairs, Ruby said.
Hunter Boshell of Huntington is a fan of the state’s biking trails.
“The mountain biking in West Virginia is amazing,” he said before a long ride with a friend at Beech Fork State Park, where the trees showed splashes of fall colors in the nearby hills.
Boshell said he would accept paying an entrance fee if the money was used for upkeep at the parks. But he would have problems with one if “you don’t see anything for it.”
Lindsey Garretson of Cross Lanes, who was watching her three children ride bikes in a meadow at Beech Fork, said she probably wouldn’t go to the parks as often if the state charged an entrance fee.
“You can bring your kids down and have a good time and not have to worry about paying to get in,” she said.
Mindful of the gap between available funding and maintenance needs, parks officials are preparing a system-wide assessment of the most crucial projects, Ruby said. Commerce Department officials will then present a proposal to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to help catch up on maintenance and ensure sufficient future funding for parks, she said.
Lawmakers also are delving into the issue. Their review includes discussions about finding a revenue source for repair and maintenance work. The parks, with a $38.7 million budget, are financed in part by general revenue and lottery funds along with self-generated money.
Laird said lawmakers haven’t yet discussed any specific funding or revenue proposals for the parks.