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Published: Tuesday, 10/2/2001

Ohio parks likely will remain free, director says


MARBLEHEAD - For more than a half-century, state park visitors have lounged on Lake Erie beaches and hiked through woods, free of charge.

Despite looming budget cuts in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the agency's director said yesterday he does not expect that to change.

“I think this administration, and this past administration, has wanted to make sure that all families have access to the outdoors,” Director Sam Speck said. “That's why we would like to avoid [a fee system] at all cost.”

The state is looking to cut spending for prisons, mental health services, parks, and other facilities because of a projected two-year, $1 billion budget shortfall. But that has some park visitors and managers worried.

“This is a hot point, depending on the budget scenario,” said Ina Brolis, manager of East Harbor State Park near Marblehead. “We're still waiting on pins and needles and hoping it's something we can handle.”

But Mr. Speck said the state has made a priority list of possible cuts and has put things such as consolidating park management, making cutbacks in park maintenance projects, and decreasing educational programming at the top of the list.

Another possibility includes shutting down, merging, or partially closing seasonal facilities such as marinas, campgrounds, and outdoor food stands.

Mr. Speck said the agency doesn't want to impose fees on visitors or close any of its 73 parks, 11 of which are in northwest Ohio. “Closing parks is not an option,” he said. “And we want to do everything possible to assure no entrance fees.”

Ohio is one of just eight states that does not charge visitors an admission fee, said Andy Ware, a spokesman for the ODNR. Locally, that includes access and free tours of the 77-step Marblehead Lighthouse as well as the former Lonz Winery property at Middle Bass Island.

Currently, patrons at state parks only pay fees to use facilities such as campgrounds and boat docks.

Mr. Speck said he was unsure what the cuts would be or what the amount is in terms of dollars and the exact percentage of ODNR's budget. He said he expects to know more within two to three weeks.

But some local park managers, including Jim Brower at Maumee Bay State Park, were undergoing changes to account for a lower budget.

Mr. Brower said a notice was issued at his office Sunday that indicated it will not immediately fill two open year-round positions, one for a part-time and the other for a full-time employee.

He said the park will absorb those vacancies and continue serving its annual 1.4 million visitors.

“We're just trying to work smarter with the dollars we have and minimize any public impacts,” Mr. Brower said.

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