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Parks Or Pork?

Has Tennessee mismanaged its state parks? One critic thinks so.

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Fourteen Tennessee state parks were closed, the remaining 40 cut operations to five days a week, and 108 park employees were fired in late August by Governor Don Sundquist, who blamed the moves on budget cuts made by the state legislature. A spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) says the closings are temporary and experiments with entrance fees are under way at several state parks.

Writer and park advocate Ron Castle says the real reasons Tennessee parks are not financially viable are unnecessarily lavish building projects and mismanagement. The problems with Tennessee's state parks run deeper than a lack of funding, Castle wrote in an article in the Tennes-Sierran, a monthly newspaper of the state chapter of the Sierra Club.

"In fact," Castle wrote, "too much money is part of the problem, money spent on the wrong things at the wrong times in the wrong places." Castle has a decade's experience with state parks and has conducted numerous interviews with park employees. "As a whole," the article continued, "the problems are the result of the long-term absence of professional leadership and the loss of the original vision of what our park system is supposed to be. To understand where we are today, we need to examine where we've been."

Castle contends that major funding has been wasted on resort parks -- hotels, golf courses, and convention centers that never pay for themselves. He says 1,600 buildings have been constructed on lands originally intended to be natural areas and that since 1990 the state has spent $131 million for resort improvements.

TDEC spokesperson Kim Olsen counters by saying state parks should be a destination for everyone, not just campers and hikers. Resort parks allow city folk to enjoy nature without having to give up the comforts of civilization, she says.

Castle believes the original resort parks were built as personal perks for the governor. In the early 1950s, he notes, Paris Landing State Park -- with a hotel and restaurant -- was built in the governor's home region. The next two governors also built resort parks near their homes, and soon state-funded hotels and golf courses were springing up all over Tennessee.

Castle questions the wisdom of the state's decision to compete with the private sector for tourism dollars and to take on debt for questionable business ventures.

"Repayment of bonds is not the responsibility of the politician who votes to put his or her name on a brass plaque at the new resort park in his or her district," Castle wrote. "Repayment is the responsibility of the taxpayers and that responsibility lasts long after the politician has retired from public office."

Castle also raises concerns about a lack of professional leadership for the state parks. In 60 years since the state first named a director of parks, none of the directors has had a formal education in natural-resource management or experience as a park manager.

Castle says leaving the management of the park system to political patronage comes at the expense of the parks themselves. He also criticizes the state's accounting procedures, claiming it is impossible to tell whether the resort parks are making money.

Olsen says they are looking at ways to employ a more accurate accounting method for resort parks. But Castle writes that state park employees have told him their suggestions for saving the parks money have been ignored.

"There are all kinds of ideas for saving money, but the problem is the state park system is managed in a command and control structure where all decisions come out of Nashville and are made for political reasons," Castle adds.

(Even in the face of park closings, new building projects are being completed. Several new cabins have been opened at Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park and a new $14 million hotel has been opened at Pickwick Landing State Park.)

Memphian Charles Rond often hikes in Millington's Meeman-Shelby State Park. He says entrance fees would not be his first choice as a method to re-open the parks. He has suggested at park meetings that groups like the Boy Scouts or hiking clubs could volunteer to save the state money on labor.

"My contention is that individual citizens could offer to continue the work of trail maintenance and take the responsibility off park personnel," Rond says. "They could coordinate efforts and send them to places that needed work and we could provide the manpower."

If the parks remain closed, however, the state of Tennessee could lose millions in funding from the National Park Service, says assistant park service director Tom Ross. The state took money from the federal government under the condition the parks would be open to the public, he says, and the closings violate that agreement.

Ross is concerned over the closings, and though he has no timetable for acting against the state, he says his agency is meeting with state officials. Options such as assistance from "friends of the parks" groups, leasing arrangements, and entrance fees are being discussed as ways to get the parks open again.

Olsen says employees terminated were given 90 days notice and will be dismissed November 30th. Though many doubt sufficient security could be maintained at the closed parks, Olsen says money has been set aside for that purpose. Golf courses and resort parks will remain open because they make a profit.

"We have been working with Tom [Ross] to establish some kind of time line to get [the parks] back open," Olsen says. "We intend this to be temporary."

(Locally, T.O. Fuller and Meeman-Shelby State Parks are closed Monday and Tuesday, but open the remainder of the week.)You can e-mail Andrew Wilkins at letters@memphisflyer.com.

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