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Published: Thursday, 5/29/2003

To fee or not to fee

News that Ohio is considering a daily entrance fee for visitors to its state parks is no real surprise, given the state's undeniable money troubles.

This would be a major step, however, since the parks have had a policy of free admission since the system was formed in 1949, and Ohio has weathered many a fiscal crisis during the past 54 years.

Spending decisions by lawmakers, who will make final changes in the state budget over the next month, ultimately will dictate whether Ohio will remain in the rather elite company of eight states that charge no park entrance fee or fall into the mundane majority of 42, including Michigan, that do.

Budget cutbacks proposed through 2005 have prompted officials in the Department of Natural Resources to consider entrance fees, possibly beginning next year. Currently, the parks charge fees for camping, reserving shelters or boat docks, renting cottages or lodge rooms, and the like.

That makes the system - 74 parks, including the newest, under development on Middle Bass Island - a model of accessibility for all Ohioans. Anyone can come in and enjoy the public facilities and areas at no charge. More than 58 million people visited the parks last year.

The easy way out, of course, is to charge a fee.

If each of those 58 million visitors paid $1, for example, the department could recoup nearly the entire parks budget of $70 million a year. Of that, $35 million comes from the state's general fund while the other half comes from fees already charged. But that would compromise a long-standing legacy of free access.

Whichever course is taken, state officials must not allow the park system to fall into disrepair and neglect, which often accompany budget cuts. One troubling sign already is the slashing of the park staff from 646 workers three years ago to 500 now.

While good management often can accomplish more with less, there are limits. At some point, there won't be enough people to keep up with mowing, trash collection, and other work, and park maintenance and service will suffer.

A system built over more than half a century should not be sacrificed to penny-wise, pound-foolish measures disguised as fiscal discipline.

So far, Ohio taxpayers have been rewarded for their support with generally excellent park facilities, 12 of which are in northwest Ohio, including the first-class lodge, marina, and golf course at Maumee Bay State Park, which would be a star in any state park system in the country.

As recently as 1997, Ohio's state park system was recognized by the National Recreation and Park Association as the best in the land.

Ohioans, in turn, take their parks seriously, as history has shown. In 1971, Gov. John J. Gilligan closed the state system during a fiscal crisis. The closing lasted only a matter of days, but the ill will it created helped seal Mr. Gilligan's fate as a one-term governor.

In today's diverse recreational world, with far more leisure choices than 30 years ago, it is unclear whether the imposition of entrance fees would be that unpopular, but the General Assembly faces a clear choice.

Ohio can go along with the crowd and, in effect, install turnstiles at park entrances. Or it can continue to set itself apart from the ordinary by maintaining a system that is accessible to everyone.

Ohioans should let their lawmakers know which path to follow.



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