A centennial celebration is an impressive achievement for any organization but is an especially important milestone for public service institutions.
In 2016, the National Park Service reached this milestone and celebrated the creation of its organization in 1916.
This year, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources is doing the same and is celebrating the centennial of the creation of the Missouri State Parks.
The idea for the department was initially brought up in the Missouri General Assembly during the year 1907. The department, however, was not officially created until April 9, 1917. The state created a state park seven years later, naming Big Spring State Park as the first state park in Missouri’s history. Today, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources protects 91 state parks and historic sites totaling nearly 146,000 acres across Missouri.
However, the department is facing a multitude of issues that are overshadowing the historic anniversary for one of the premiere state park systems in the United States.
According to the Missouri Parks Association and State Park Funding Coalition, the department is currently facing an extreme backlog of somewhere between $200 to $400 million in needed infrastructure improvements in the parks throughout the state.
This backlog includes upgrades to vital systems for parks, such as replacing aging water and electrical systems, where $55.9 million is needed. It also includes upgrades that more directly affect visitors, such as campsite upgrades and cabin repairs, of which $94.8 million is needed.
Unfortunately, fixing these issues is not as straightforward as it may seem. The Missouri State Parks funding system is different from most and has contributed to a lack of money to fix these issues.
The majority of the State Park System’s money comes from the Parks and Soils Sales Tax that was created in 1984. This tax is a one tenth of one percent sales tax that goes towards water and soil conservation efforts, as well as to the Missouri State Parks.
Half of the money collected from this tax statewide goes directly to the state park system, where it makes up nearly three-fourths of its total budget.
This tax is put up for a renewal vote every 10 years and has been renewed each time since its creation, including in the 2016 general election.
“The vote that was taken in 2016 was a resounding expression of support,” said Jan Neitzert, executive director of the Missouri Park and Recreation Association. “That many people voting for a tax is nearly unheard of.”
Despite the several renewals of the tax, the state of Missouri experienced a budgetary crisis in the 1990s, which forced the Department of Natural Resources to use the tax money on the operations of the department, rather than the parks themselves.
This crisis and several issues in the following years started a growing lack of funding that has finally caught up to the parks department.
On top of the massive backlog, the state park system is facing never before seen legislation directed towards it from state legislators. House Bill 698, proposed by Rep. Randy Pietzman of District 41, would prevent the state from establishing any new park land or expanding any current park by more than ten percent until the maintenance of backlog is dealt with. This bill easily passed through the House Committee on Conservation and Natural Resources as well as the House Committee on Rules-Administrative Oversight. It most recently passed the Missouri House of Representatives by a vote of 85 to 62.
This bill is being met with backlash from some citizens and lawmakers who believe that this would significantly hobble the state park system.
“The bill would prohibit the state from purchasing land until all current state parks are ‘properly maintained, brought up to date and in good working order’,” said Martha Stevens, Missouri District 46 Representative who voted no on the bill. “This is a nearly impossible standard to meet for even the best funded organization of the size of the Missouri Parks Division.”
It could take decades for the Department of Natural Resources to work through the backlog, which could make the state miss out on the many benefits of a strong and expanding state park system.
“This bill impacts our Missouri economy and tourism,” Stevens said. “If we halt any new land purchases, we are also missing an opportunity for job creation.”
Interestingly, these issues come at a time when Missouri citizens are supporting their state park system more than ever before. The system has seen a significant increase in usage over the last several years, with 21,273,397 people visiting last year, nearly 2.7 million more people than in 2014, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
“I think HB 698 would send a message to citizens that the general assembly does not value Missouri Parks,” Stevens said. “I know that the citizens in my district overwhelmingly support the maintenance and expansion of the parks.”
Emily Moynihan, a Columbia resident, does support the park system, but also sees the potential advantages to HB 698 and fixing park infrastructure. “Missouri State Parks are a place to escape and be able to appreciate the natural world in Missouri,” she said. “So I would first make sure that the existing parks are all taken care of.”
Like Moynihan, many Missourian’s also voted overwhelmingly to renew the main source of funding for the parks system; the Parks, Soils, and Waters sales tax, in the November, 2016 general election. The renewal was passed with 79.88 percent of Missourians voting in favor, more than 9 percent more than when the tax was last voted on in 2006.
“It passed in every county,” said Neitzert. “And what I see is that shows that every area appreciates conservation of our natural resources.”
The future success of Missouri’s State Park system is clearly a crucial issue for both lawmakers and citizens of the state. However, their approaches to solving the systems’ budgetary problems are vastly different.
“Missouri parks are vital refuges for plant and wildlife,” Stevens said. Lawmakers will hope to find common ground with each other as well as the citizens of the state to ensure the success long-term of the highly regarded Missouri State Park system.