Vermont maintains and operates 55 state parks. Last year, these parks saw 1,009,675 visitors. The overall economic contribution attributable to these visits was assessed at $92 million. How much did the state invest in these parks? A mere $623,000. Fully 97 percent of the $11 million operating budget for the parks was supported by the State Parks Special Fund.

This fund is the repository for gate receipts, sales of services within the parks, ski area land leases, timber sales on parks land, plus licenses and special-use permits on parks land. Quite specifically and, as examples, five percent of each ski lift ticket and 2.5 percent of the sale of each hot dog are deposited in the fund.

Because of the extraordinary reliance necessarily placed on the fund for supporting the state parks, increases in standard admissions for particular parks services have been proposed and are currently going through the Administrative Rules Procedure, a process which includes input from the public. For instance, the proposed increase, per night, for tent camping is $1, for lean-to use is $3, and for cabin use is $3. These three increases alone, if authorized, will provide $336,000 in new revenue.

There is a related disturbing truth regarding the fund. In order to meet executive branch directives to attain certain percentage increases or decreases in bottom line dollars, money has had to be taken from the fund to replace money which otherwise would have been attributed to General Fund spending. The costs of running the parks remains, but the means of covering the expense shifts. This is not sustainable and undercuts the support system of what is generally considered 55 jewels in the “crown” of the Vermont “brand.”

We are running our state parks on a frayed shoestring. Thank goodness there exists the public-private partnership called Vermont Parks Forever. This entity exists solely to raise funds to enhance and protect the state parks. Here are some ways in which they have helped: They have purchased season passes for foster families, maintained a youth scholarship to support an annual summer internship at Mt. Philo State Park and they helped to manage the legacy land gifts which opened Muckross State Park in Springfield and the Taconic Mountains Ramble State Park in Hubbardton. They have also raised the funds needed for the new exhibits and interactive learning features at the Groton Nature Center, a building which the state parks division of Forests, Parks and Recreation is renovating. The center was built in 1981 and basically has not been changed since. It serves the seven state parks situated in the Groton State Forest.

There are enhancements under way in other state parks. In response to increased visitation and visitor demand, Lake Shaftsbury State Park is looking at a new playground, a more relaxed pet policy, a special dog-only swimming area with its own access and an extended operating season.

Lowell Lake State Park, 356 acres in Londonderry, is going through a master planning project focused on improvements for visitor safety and experience, environmental resource protection and alternatives for reutilization of cabins pre-dating 1996.  

Sand Bar State Park, one of the busiest of the parks, has not seen re-investment for 30 years.  Currently, planning work is in process to move the entrance for visibility and safety, to restore the buffers for the wetlands which are ranked exceptional to irreplaceable, to upgrade the stone bathhouse building to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards and to improve accessibility across the park.  

This listing is just a sampling demonstrating that, even though it is on a shoestring, the parks administrators and employees and volunteers, all of whom truly love these parks, are not allowing them to stagnate. I, for one, am grateful for that dedication which benefits our individual and collective well-being, economic and otherwise.

If you want to have perhaps the best time ever, engage in the Venture Vermont Outdoor Challenge. It runs from April 15 to October 15. Go to the website, do the activities listed, and take photos to prove you are doing them. Once you reach 250 points, submit your list with the photos and voila, you have earned free entry to the state parks for the remainder of this year and all of next year. It is not too late to give it a try!

Questions? Concerns? Contact me by email at mtownsend@leg.state.vt.us or at mftownsend@comcast.net, by phone at 802-862-7404, at my home at 232 Patchen Road, on the street, or at Duke’s Public House (aka Trader Duke’s) from 8:30 to 9:30 Saturday mornings.

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