Wandering the West | ParkRecord.com

Wandering the West

by Larry Warren, Record columnist

Are you paying attention to the places Utah government is cutting its budget, and why it may be doing so? I worry that people and places many Utahns hold dear are being chopped in the name of balancing a budget while another agenda is at play. In recent weeks, legislative auditors have listed five state parks as money-losing drains on the leaky state budget, putting them at the top of potential places to be closed. Good men and women are suddenly unemployed in the name of state budget cuts when maybe they were just being too vigilant in doing their jobs.

This sort of thing is happening nationally. For some reason, state parks are taking huge hits as states try to weather the Great Recession. California in the last month decided to close 70 of its 278 state parks – that’s better than a quarter of them. Twenty in the Bay Area alone are being shuttered in the name of saving $22 million, including one favorite I’ve written about here – Tomales Bay State Park. Arizona made its park cuts last year, padlocking gates across most of its system. Oklahoma legislators are threatening to shut their state parks or turn them over to for-profit private companies to run.

I’m on a trip to the upper Midwest right now, and Minnesotans are still fuming that, because the leaders in their legislature can’t reach a budget, all parks were ordered closed over the Fourth of July weekend. Imagine the number of family camping trips, reunions, picnics and fun hikes with the kids that were washed out.

Auditors working for the Utah legislature say Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding is the biggest money loser, and the other culprits are Green River State Park, The Utah Field House of Natural History in Vernal, and the Territorial State House in Fillmore. Count on all of them to be targeted for closure next budget round.

Already state legislators have cut the parks budget from $12.2 million in recent years to $6.8 million today. Twenty-three park professionals have been laid off, retired or fired so far in the latest round of cuts. Earlier this month the Nature Center at Rock Cliff on Jordanelle was locked up, ending decades of programs to teach kids about the beauties around them, instilling an ethic to grow up curious and protective of such places.

State government is not a for-profit business. Some segments of it will lose money. That’s why we pay taxes. Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding has a collection of a half million artifacts, most stored in temperature- and humidity-controlled vaults with many of the more interesting ones put on display. It was Cal Black, the conservative Republican legislator who fiercely fought for his often-neglected southeastern corner of the state, who got Edge of the Cedars funded so that the rich history of the area could stay put instead of being shipped off to big-city museums. He must be rolling in his grave about what his legislature is doing now.

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In Vernal, the Field House was created to showcase Northeastern Utah’s rich heritage of dinosaur discoveries. As school kids flock to Rock Cliff and Edge of the Cedars to learn of the world in their backyard, so too do the kids of the Vernal area. In Fillmore, visitors to Utah’s first state capital learn some of the history surrounding the founding of the state, and see close up the architecture built in a land of little material wealth.

Utah’s state-run museums and cultural showcases are vulnerable. Where are their defenders? Why are state parks expected to be profit centers? We pay taxes for things we need as a society – roads, courts, police, paramedics, forest rangers and the like. State parks are in that category.

While it’s easy to vent at legislators, where are the citizens who love these Utah institutions when we need them? Citizens need to speak out and step up. These are state treasures, just like the parks of California, Arizona, Oklahoma and nationwide. Legislatures need to value these resources even as they apply their budget cuts. Putting chains on the gates and posting "Keep Out" signs is not serving the public.

Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.