By Maureen Halsema
Today there are over 6,600 state parks covering 14 million acres across the nation. Each year, these parks draw millions of visitors across Appalachia. Tennessee State Parks alone average 25 million annual visitors. North Carolina has about 13.4 million visitors; West Virginia attracts about 7.5 million visitors each year; and Virginia brings in about 7 million annual visitors.
Parks and public lands are fundamental to state economies and to the parks’ bordering communities. Ecotourism generates millions of dollars annually. For example, according to a study conducted by N.C. State University for the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, North Carolina’s state parks generate $289 million in revenue in addition to $120 million in local resident’s income. This study also found that investment in park programs and services leads to higher visitation and therefore higher state and local revenues. In addition, the increase in programs creates more jobs for the local communities.
State recreation areas are not only vital supplements to the economy, but they are also integral to physical and mental health. “Nature provides significant health benefits, one being stress reduction,” said Michael Kirschman said in his article, “Know Your Audience, Speak Their Language, and Get the Support You Need,” published in Legacy in July. “Since over 100 studies find that spending time in nature reduces stress, it can be argued nature preserves and their facilities have a positive impact on the health of our residents.”
Yet funding is a significant issue for many state parks. “In West Virginia, 65 percent of funding is generated by the park,” said Robert Beanblossom, district administrator for the Parks and Recreation section of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. “The other 35 percent comes from general revenue from the legislature and some is from lottery money.” The current funds do not meet the parks’ demands for projects such as maintaining infrastructure, managing invasive species, and developing park programs. Insufficient funding results in deterioration of parkland infrastructure and an inability to fulfill park objectives.
State parks are afforded many of the same legislative protections of the land, water, air, and endangered species as federally run national parks. For instance, in Kentucky, hunting, extraction or damaging biological resources, and logging are prohibited in state parks. While the main premise tends to be congruent from state to state, specific regulations can vary. For example, in some state parks hunting is permitted. In addition, some sections of state parks are designated nature preserves, which means they are provided the highest level of protection of all the state lands.
Parks are finding that their space is limited due to increasing development around the parks’ borders, leaving little or in some cases no room for the preserved lands to expand its boundaries. In West Virginia, there have been no new parks added since 1989. “In many of our parks, we have reached our maximum carrying capacity that we can have without jeopardizing the resources of the park,” Beanblossom said. As populations continue to grow, conserving these valuable natural lands will become an even more important task.