More Visitors Plus Less Funding Could Equal a Troubled Future for Arizona State Parks

A tour group sits on a tram at Kartchner Caverns State Park in southern Arizona. (Photo by Nicholas Gerbis/KJZZ)

PHOENIX – State parks benefit conservation and community health. But those benefits come at a cost — one that could soon grow prohibitively expensive, according to new research.

The study appears in the journal PNAS.

From 1984 to 2017, 25 percent more people attended Arizona state parks, yet funding over the past decade has dropped by 30 percent.

That’s a problem, because higher visitation is the biggest driver of state park operational costs.

Lead author Jordan Smith of Utah State University and colleagues found that, following current trends, such expenditures could increase more than 750 percent by midcentury.

“And as a result, state parks systems need more funding from state legislators and other revenue sources to continue to provide those outdoor recreation opportunities at their current level of quality,” he said.

Graphic by Jordan W Smith/Utah State University
Graphic by Jordan W. Smith/Utah State University

Arizona is ranked 46th in percentage of budget allocated to state parks.

Smith said a growing trend among state legislatures is to avoid appropriation increases by requiring state parks to raise their own revenue.

“They’ll say, ‘You can increase user fees, you can charge more for particular services,’ whatever it is to bring in more money.”

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Such fee increases partly explain why revenue within state park systems has gone up over the past three or four years. But Smith questions whether such an approach will prove viable over the long term as a means of providing an affordable public good.

“The state parks have to have some buy-in from state legislatures and an increasing amount of money coming from their state budgets,” he said.

States are also considering options such as sponsorship by private companies and adding taxes to sales of outdoor equipment.