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Recreation officials seek more funding for state parks

MUSKOGEE, Okla. (AP) After six years of neglect, tourism and recreation officials hope legislators will start reinvesting in the 50 state parks that dot the Oklahoma landscape and lure millions of tourism dollars.

Oklahoma's state parks, like many state-parks systems across the nation, saw appropriations shrink after a national recession that began in 2001 dried up Oklahoma's revenue streams and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, sent tremors through the global economy.

Tourism and recreation appropriations in Oklahoma tumbled nearly 19 percent from fiscal year 2002 to 2003 and have never recovered. In fact, tourism and recreation appropriations during the past six years, after adjusting for inflation, have fallen 27 percent, according to the Oklahoma Senate's 2006 Appropriation Report.

Nationwide, state funding for parks decreased by about 5 percent overall from 2003 to 2004, according to the latest available statistics in the Annual Information Exchange, a report compiled by all 50 state parks directors.

``It's getting to the point that if we don't start making fixes now, we will really have some problems on our hands,'' said Mike Fina, a spokesman for the State Tourism and Recreation Department.

Fina said the agency has identified maintenance needs that would cost more than $88 million to resolve. He said $10 million is needed immediately to make improvements that, if not addressed, could close some facilities.

Steve Williams, park manager of Greenleaf and Tenkiller state parks, agrees.

``I think Oklahoma has one of the premier parks systems in the nation,'' said Williams, who has visited numerous park systems during his 29 years managing state parks. ``But our buildings and utilities are getting old, and it's time we make some major changes.''

Williams said the cabins and other structures at Greenleaf were constructed in the 1930s under the Works Progress Administration, and all of them could use a facelift. But some of the most critical needs are things you can't see: buried water lines and electric cables that have decayed to such an extent that they may not be useable much longer.

``State parks, in general, have done a great job with the funds we've had to work with,'' Williams said. ``Some day, some way, somehow, the state has to find a dedicated funding source that can be used to take care of what we've got.''

Legislators may be able to help on that end. House Bill 2431, which was passed the House and was referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee would create a trust fund of $7 million, the interest of which _ and up to 5 percent of the principle _ could be drawn annually specifically to fund capital improvement projects for state parks.

Amanda Storck, director of policy and research at the Tourism and Recreation Department, said funding the trust is possible because of windfall of royalties generated from oil and gas leases on state park properties. The trust, Storck said, would go a long way toward providing the dedicated income source Williams says is necessary.

Fina said the prospects for passage of HB 2431 is good.

``Being at the Capitol, and talking to legislators, there seems to be a positive buzz about the needs of state parks,'' Fina said. ``I don't see any reason why this bill wouldn't be passed.''
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