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Gov’s state park initiative deserves public support

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Gov. James Douglas and Natural Resources Sec. George Crombie announced an important initiative late last week to consider ways to restore and revitalize the state park system. The first step in that hoped-for outcome is to create a 20-member commission to craft a game plan.

Win Smith, president of Sugarbush Resort in Warren, and Tom Hark, founding president of the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, are the chairman and vice-chairman respectively. Their recommendations to the governor are to be delivered by Jan. 31, 2008. One of the interesting early suggestions made by the governor and Human Resources Sec. Cynthia LaWare is to offer employment of some of the state’s young and underemployed residents.

“The governor and I recognize that every Vermonter has unique talents and deserves the chance for meaningful employment,” LaWare said. “Just as the Vermont economy will require every qualified job seeker to meet the needs of the business community, Vermont State Parks will need to utilize every available individual to help in this rebuilding effort.”

With a willingness to tap underemployed Vermonters and a realistic assessment of the parks’ need for significant “innovation,” the commission apparently has a green light from the governor to pursue bold and long-lasting changes that will boost the state’s recreational and environmental pursuits for decades to come. That’s excellent news for local residents and for businesses affiliated with Vermont tourism — an area of the state’s economy that has been under-funded for decades and could benefit from creative thinking.

The good news on this particular front is that Vermont has a strong foundation on which to build. The state park system is comprised of 52 parks with about 48,000 acres. There are 29 public beaches within those parks and 2,292 campsites spread among 41 campgrounds. The parks attracted 672,927 visitors in 2006, but spent $7.1 million while only bringing in $6.1 million in receipts.

An early and obvious objective is to balance annual expenses with revenues coming in to make the system financially self-sustaining. But a bigger problem remains: Early estimates by Craig Whipple, director of the state parks, suggest that $40 million to $50 million is needed to update and repair the existing infrastructure. Broken fireplaces and antiquated bathrooms are commonplace and better sources of drinking water are needed.

Employing the state’s youth and underemployed to help in these renovation efforts is certainly one avenue to pursue. But there are many other approaches relying on the good will of regular users that can accomplish much at little cost. Community groups such as the Lions Club, Rotary Club and American Legion often look favorably on fund-raising efforts to improve facilities that benefit area youth, recreation and fitness. Area schools that often use the facilities might be able to coordinate non-school workdays, or workdays that could incorporate an environmental and recreational theme. Sporting groups that promote hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation could rally members to help rebuild fireplaces, while more sophisticated efforts could refurbish restroom facilities. Local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, 4-H and other groups could also provide help. In short, the number of hours of volunteer help (either fund-raising or actual work) that could be amassed for such a good cause is enormous.

Finally, the usage fees of America’s parks are typically priced far below what the market would bear. On a recent trip to the Canadian Rockies I spent $8.50 each day I was driving through the Banff-Lake Louise-Jasper corridor and that was just for the use of the roads. To camp anywhere was another fee of several dollars — and yet the roads were packed and the campgrounds full. The message is simple: Provide a good product and the public will gladly pay a fee that will ensure adequate maintenance to provide for the facilities’ routine upgrades.

Adequate maintenance is not happening today, however, and that’s undoubtedly part of the impetus behind the governor’s new initiative. The governor deserves kudos for putting this issue on the table, along with the public’s enthusiastic support of the commission’s effort to craft a successful game plan.

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