Op-ed: National Parks could learn from Utah’s state parks management

(S.L. Tribune) This year the National Park Service is celebrating its 100-year anniversary. But as the agency enters its second century, our national parks are in trouble. A recent study conducted by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) noted that the Park Service has a deferred maintenance backlog of nearly $12 billion — an amount five times that of its last budget from Congress.

The symptoms of this backlog are evident throughout our national parks. Nearly half the roadways in national parks are rated in “fair” or “poor” condition. Dozens of bridges are considered “structurally deficient.” And 6,700 miles — more than one-third of all trails in the entire park system — are in “poor” or “seriously deficient” condition. Not only does this jeopardize the safety and quality of visitors’ experiences, but it threatens the very resources the National Park Service was created to protect.

However, all is not gloom and doom in our public parks. PERC’s latest report showed that state parks are providing the high-quality recreational opportunities that visitors seek, and doing so responsibly. Most people don’t realize that Western state parks receive nearly twice as many visitors as national parks in the West.

Take Utah’s state parks. These parks are incredibly popular, receiving more than 200 visitors per acre in 2013 — more than any other Western state and 47 times as many visits per acre as national parks in the West. Utah’s parks are better managed as well. In 2013, visitor fees covered 66 percent of Utah state parks’ expenditures, while national park visitor fees accounted for just 10 percent of the National Park Service’s management costs.

To see why this matters, consider Utah’s Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab. This park is renowned for the mountain biking experience it provides visitors through picturesque desert scenery. But it wasn’t always this way. In the early 2000s, Dead Horse Point was losing popularity — bad news for the park’s budget. In response, park managers decided to put in nine miles of mountain biking trails to attract more visitors. In 2009, the Intrepid Trail System opened to great success, and annual visits increased almost 50,000 between 2005 and 2010 — earning nearly $25,000 from visitors using the trail in 2010.

Today, the Dead Horse Point park trail system consists of 17 miles of single-track bike trails and has become a nationally recognized biking destination. It’s hard to imagine the National Park Service being as innovative and entrepreneurial as Utah’s state park managers.

While the role of the National Park Service in supplying recreational opportunities in the state is widely known across the country, Utah’s state parks play perhaps an even more important role. Our state parks are conserving Utah’s natural and cultural resources and providing the types of recreational opportunities the public desires in an economically sustainable manner. The National Park Service needs to take a page out of Utah’s book and learn to responsibly manage the lands entrusted to its care.

Matthew Anderson is policy analyst for the Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a project of the Salt Lake City-based Sutherland Institute.

This op-ed was originally published June 25 in The Salt Lake Tribune.