New Hampshire could improve its state park system by reorganizing management and by inviting communities or volunteer groups to help maintain the land, but direct state funding is needed for true revitalization, according to a draft plan released Monday.
New Hampshire's park system, the only self-funded system in the country, relies on visitor fees from 74 parks, beaches, campgrounds and ski areas to pay for its operation and maintenance. But revenues have fallen short by an average of $400,000 a year since the funding model was adopted in 1991, and the system faces a $1.8 million deficit, said Ted Austin, director of the Division of Parks and Recreation.
In a letter attached to the 10-year development plan, Austin said he hopes the Legislature will consider providing annual funding. He recommends a one-time allocation of $750,000 to replace equipment including chain saws and vehicles that won't pass state inspection.
The plan also proposes creating three categories of parks: well-developed "enterprise parks" that get lots of visitors and generate the most revenue, largely undeveloped "natural parks" that generate little or no revenue and "classic parks" that fit somewhere in between.
The goal is to manage each group more efficiently, Austin said at a news conference Monday. For example, enterprise parks would focus on generating more money with new recreation activities, while natural parks would focus on protecting resources and decreasing management expenses.
An earlier draft plan was rescinded by the state in July after public outcry over language that seemed to indicate a willingness to lease or sell 27 parks that produce no income. George Bald, commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, acknowledged that the language was misleading but said the state never intended to sell the parks.
"I think we're certainly going to look at partnerships, but the idea of us selling a park never was the intention and it certainly isn't in this (plan)," he said at a news conference.
Bald used Forest Lake State Park in Dalton as an example. The state could approach town officials or volunteer groups to share in staffing and maintaining the 397-acre park that opened in 1935, he said.
"It's never going to be a large moneymaker, but it's crucial to the people who live in that area," he said.
Rep. Leigh Webb, a member of the advisory council that worked on the plan, said state parks provide a service and should be supported by taxpayer money. He said he hoped the rest of the Legislature would agree but said it would be a tough sell in this economy.
"It's very, very tough," said Webb, D-Franklin. "I have tempered my optimism with a little realism."
Four public hearings are scheduled in early December in Portsmouth, Concord, Peterborough and Lancaster. A final version of the plan is expected in early January.