Tourism Department doing its job

April 6, 2011

It has been reported that the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department will close seven state parks this year on August 15. This decision by the leadership at the department should be praised and supported. With this action, the department is providing an example for all state agencies of how to analyze past spending efforts, refocus on core functions, and eliminate non-core functions of government.

The parks to be closed have a combined average self-sufficiency level of a dismal 34 percent, and after accounting for revenue (from user fees) cost the state $509,711 per year. Every park being closed has a loss that must be funded through state appropriations every year.

As demonstrated by their continued revenue losses, their need for state subsidies, and their poor performance, the parks have been an example of the state providing funds for non-core functions which purely benefit intensely local purposes. OCPA has written frequently about such misguided uses of taxpayer funds. Two of the parks, Adair State Park and Lake Eucha State Park, are a municipal city park and a municipal city pool, which were “gifted” to the state when the local community decided it would no longer fully support their municipal facilities. Three of the parks, Beaver Dunes, Brushy Lake, and Wah-Sha-She, provide the same recreational services as other, better-performing parks within close proximity. The two remaining parks have been determined to provide only some intensely local historical purpose, and therefore are not a proper or prioritized function of the Tourism Department. Based on this evidence, it is baffling these parks weren’t closed, privatized, or operated locally long ago.

The notion that some parks need to be closed is nothing new. It’s not an idea supported only by the current leadership at the Tourism Department or by conservative think tanks. Former Governor Brad Henry’s budget recommendations included the prioritization of Tourism park funding, and included specific recommendations to sell and close state parks and golf courses.

Some have asserted that the decision to close these parks is purely punitive to one area of the state. But this shows a lack of understanding of where state parks are located, and a lack of historical knowledge of how state parks were established. In the past, location of a park had far more to do with the political power of certain legislators than with state need for a particular park. Of the parks slated for closure, all but one is located roughly 30 miles or less from another state park. Currently, there are five state parks located in Delaware County alone. Of the 42 state parks, 11 are located west of I-35 and 31 are located east of I-35. So, if one area of the state has 73 percent of the state parks, and revenues and resources must be refocused, clearly more parks will be reduced in areas where more state parks are located.

Kudos to the Oklahoma Tourism Department for doing its job and wisely refocusing resources on core state tourism purposes.