WITH record gasoline prices encouraging families to consider vacationing closer to home this summer. Ohio's state parks offer a perfect alternative for parents who want to reacquaint themselves and introduce their children to the wonders of nature without the expense of a long road trip. How much longer that will be true, however, is a growing concern.
Ohio's 74 state parks play host to more than 50 million visitors each year but, as the recent closing of Crane Creek State Park east of Toledo makes clear, the park system is being systematically starved of critical funding.
For nearly two decades, the parks have proved a convenient whipping boy for state legislators in search of agency budgets to slash. Year after biennial year, declining state support has forced staffing reductions and maintenance delays. The result is that 22 of 74 parks now have no permanent staff, 32 more have no on-site management, and the system has accrued a whopping $500 million maintenance backlog.
Previous attempts to offset lost general-budget funds have proved less than successful. A plan under the administration of Gov. Bob Taft to charge for parking at state parks, for example, was quickly abandoned in the face of public outrage over anything that would curtail Ohio's long admission-free tradition.
Those people accustomed to spending summer afternoons picnicking and enjoying the beach at Crane Creek now are paying a different sort of price. Because it has been absorbed into Magee Marsh State Wildlife Area (in itself not a bad thing), the former state park is now closed to picnickers and beachgoers.
With Ohio continuing to face huge budget deficits and the state and nation teetering on the edge recession, the prospect of miraculously finding more money to maintain the parks is remote. To this point, the staff and volunteers have done yeoman's duty on maintenance, but it is only a matter of time before deteriorating roads, trails, parking lots, and other facilities begin to harm the experience of visitors.
The irony is that this funding crisis is coming to a head at a time when state parks could - and should - see a surge in use, providing a boost to local economies as well as state coffers.
Ohio has much to offer visitors, whether they're from across the state or across the country. One could, without exaggeration, spend one's whole life exploring the 174,000 acres of land and water resources in the parks system, not to mention Ohio's hundreds of historic sites, miles of coastline, scores of museums, and countless other events and points of interest scattered from the shores of Lake Erie to the banks of the Ohio River.
Lawmakers should take care lest through common neglect they do irreparable damage to a vital state resource that likely will become even more important as fuel costs continue to rise in the foreseeable future.