Tourism and recreation officials converted our state parks to gated communities, erecting a financial barrier by imposing an $8 parking fee.
Eastern Oklahoma lawmakers believe residents who live near a state park should be admitted without cost. While we have supported hikes for campground fees in the past to help maintain our state parks, we believe Oklahomans should be able to spend the day at them for free.
Jerry Winchester, the governor’s pick to serve as executive director at the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, said the parking fee is needed to help offset a 64% decline in appropriated funds since 2009. He said about $40 million should be spent annually to maintain park assets worth about $1 billion, but the state spends only $10 million.
This failure to appropriate the funding necessary to maintain — and improve — our state parks reflects policy choices that favor tax cuts and incentives and put public infrastructure and natural resources at risk. The fact that this $8 parking fee was implemented June 22 — a week when more than 165,000 Oklahomans filed continuing unemployment claims and during a pandemic — is another step down a path of poor policy choices.
An estimated 9.3 million people visited Oklahoma state parks, generating annual revenue of about $26 million — that is but a fraction of the overall economic impact. Visitors spend a lot more money outside the parks, supporting an estimated 100,000 jobs across the state and generating about $627 million in state and local tax revenue.
Our state parks are worth making a public investment that doesn't put a $10 million burden on hard-working Oklahomans who would like to spend a little time enjoying the outdoors. That investment should be made from dedicated revenue streams with deeper funding pools — surcharges on big-ticket athletics, sporting goods or boats — that will ensure parks will be maintained well into the future.