“I was surprised this year that we had great turnout,” Justin Howard, the park’s assistant superintendent of maintenance, said from his office on Thursday. “We were completely booked up every weekend. We had to turn people away.”
Those summer and fall crowds weren’t evident Thursday at Cheaha, with just a few scattered campers dotting the highest point in Alabama. It’s unlikely they’ll return for the rest of the year as state parks prepare for the slower winter months that typically begin after the Thanksgiving weekend.
But while the number of visitors to the parks may have been up, don’t expect it to be reflected in next year’s budget as Alabama continues to cut funding for state parks.
“We’re almost completely self-sustaining,” said Thomas Dunlap, chief management analyst for the state parks division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. More than 95 percent of the budget for state parks is from user fees, with camping fees the biggest slice of the pie, followed by lodge and cabin rentals, hotels and restaurant sales.
That’s by necessity. State parks receive almost no money from the Alabama general fund, and even the modest $5 million parks received in 2010 from sales tax generated by stores and restaurants located within their boundaries didn’t come their way in 2011. The money won’t be back until 2014 because until then it’s being diverted to the general fund.
“By then, we’ll really need it,” Dunlap said. “We’ve had to tighten our belts, and I think this time we drilled a hole in our belt buckle to make it work.”
The modest sum only equates to about 15 percent of the operating budget every year for state parks, according to Steve Wishum, chief of operations and maintenance for the state parks division, but it’s a little that goes a long way.
But while the money is certainly missed, the lack of funding from the state actually gives Alabama parks a strange operational advantage over most of their neighbors.
“We’ve never had lots of funding from the state,” Wishum said. “Some other states are asking us, how do you do this and that without it?”
Until recently Georgia’s 48 state parks received half their operating money from the state’s general fund. In recent years, that has been slashed up to 40 percent.
“We’ve had pretty significant layoffs, reduction in staff and some programming,” said Kim Hatcher, public affairs coordinator for Georgia state parks. “In some parks, we’ve closed offices or visitor centers.”
In some drastic cases, the state parks have been taken over by local governments. Tanner Park, just across the Alabama-Georgia border on Interstate 20, is now operated by Carroll County.
One of the ways Alabama has been able to keep costs down is by reducing the number of employees who work in the parks — necessitated in part because of dwindling tobacco tax funds that had supported state parks starting in the 1970s.
“In 1994-95, we had 774 employees in man-years,” Wishum said. “In 2009-10 we had 554.”
While Alabama might be better-prepared than most to deal with state cutbacks, it doesn’t mean there’s always stability in the budget. In recent years, elements beyond the parks’ control wreaked havoc on expected visitor turnouts.
“2010 started off great, then we had the oil spill,” Dunlap said, referring to the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico, which kept many visitors away from Gulf State Park on the coast. “2011 started off great, then we had the tornado.”
It also means that while parks like Cheaha were enjoying better-than-average turnouts, Lake Guntersville to the north, which received tornado damage earlier this year, saw a significant drop-off in visitors, much like Gulf Shores had a tough time attracting tourism last summer.
“The last two years it’s been hard to put numbers up,” Dunlap said. “It’s kind of like saying ‘we would have a good year if …’”
It’s not only unexpected natural disasters that can cause problems.
“We’re sort of like farmers,” Wishum said. “If we get a few rainy weekends to start our spring season, that can set us back.”
Paradoxically, though, it’s the tough economy — the one eliminating government funding to the parks — that might end up saving their budgets.
“Gas is so high, people don’t want to go out of state,” said Jeremy Shaddix, a maintenance worker at Cheaha. “A lot of local people have never been here, and people are starting to check out state parks.”
Not all of Alabama’s 22 state parks saw an increase in visitors in 2011, but the ones that did noticed a trend: State residents were checking out attractions close to where they lived.
“We saw people this summer who will comment, ‘I didn’t even know this was in our backyard,’” said Kent Wilborn, the park manager at Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville. “A lot of locals are staying close to home, which helps us in future years. They’ll come back if they had a good time.”
And the trip probably won’t leave a hole in their wallets. Renting a cabin for the weekend at Cheaha can cost under $100, and access to much of the park is just $2.
“The thing you can say about Alabama state parks is that they’re for everyone,” said Tammy Power, lodge manager for Cheaha State Park. “If you can’t afford anything else, pack a sandwich and come to the mountain.”
Star staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546