Colorado’s State Parks Need Funding, But Lawmakers Struggle With How

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With summer here, people are flocking to the outdoors, including the trails, campsites and reservoirs of the Colorado State Parks system. Last year, the parks hit a record number of visitors – 13.5 million.  But Colorado is struggling to keep up with the demand.

Golden Gate Canyon State Park is rolling and green, nestled deep in the Rocky Mountain foothills. Just 45 minutes from Denver, this is the state's fourth most popular state park. It stays that way for most of the year.

"You could literally spend the whole day hiking through the backcountry of Golden Gate," said park manager Dan Weber.

But all the people coming to camp, fish, hike and bike are putting a strain on an already stretched staff. Sites are crowded. Parking lots overflow, so people park on the street, making some places dangerous, according to Weber.  On the busiest days, he worries the crowds detract from the park.

"When people are up trying to fish, those areas get overrun," he said. "You know, sometimes you go by there and you just see people fishing shoulder to shoulder. In a way, you kind of wonder what kind of an experience they're having."

Though state officials focus on how more people accessing the outdoors is a good thing, they're also aware of the problems.

"We come here, we stay here, we live here because Colorado is a unique environment," said Lauren Truitt, a spokeswoman with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "How do we make sure that Colorado doesn't lose its special allure of our natural resources?"

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is facing a $14 million deficit over the next couple of years. One aspect of the problem is that state law doesn't allow increases in fees for hunting, fishing and boating licenses to keep up with inflation or demand. Entrance fees have also been stagnant.

"We have not done a resident hunting and fishing license increase since 2005." said Truitt. "We do not generally receive tax funding from the state of Colorado."

The agency proposed allowing state parks to increase fees for hunting and fishing licenses by up to 50%. Even though hunting and fishing groups backed it and the bill passed the House with bipartisan support, Democrats and Republicans alike also voted no.

Ultimately, the Republican-controlled Senate Finance Committee struck it down. Republican Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs serves on that committee and felt the proposal needed more work.

"I don't know that we've done our due diligence to say we are stewarding this money as well as we can," said Hill. "I came in to try to find a way to support this, and every time I find one thing, I find three other questions that we have. I do think our parks, our wildlife, our natural resources are a top priority."

An audit is scheduled for later in 2017. It could help answer questions for Hill and other lawmakers.

In the meantime, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is holding informal discussions about new funding models. For instance, should hikers, mountain climbers, and mountain bikers pay a separate fee?

Ben Specht (L), Sam Grinnell, and Jessica Tifft came to Golden Gate for a family vacation.
Credit Bente Birkeland / Capitol Coverage
Ben Specht (L), Sam Grinnell, and Jessica Tifft came to Golden Gate for a family vacation.

Carbondale resident Christopher Dominick said he'd be fine with that. The 26-year-old entrepreneur said he frequently goes to state parks.

"I like to fish. I like to hike. I like to hang out with my friends. I like to take my dog for a walk," he said. "I think it's our responsibility to be good stewards of our state and federal lands and I believe that more money for those things is a worthy cause."

And what about an excise tax on outdoor gear, similar to what happens for hunting and fishing equipment? That would take buy-in from the outdoor industry.

"In terms of the taxation of product, you always want product to be competitive and competitively priced," said Luis Benitez, the head of Colorado's Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry. "I think there's a lot of dialogue around, is that the right vehicle, or not the right vehicle?"

Benitez suggests customers purchase a sticker that's not mandatory as a starting point.

Parks and Wildlife officials said all options are on the table. Without more money, they expect layoffs and infrastructure problems.

For now, most visitors don't notice the looming issues. Ben Specht drove out to Golden Gate Canyon from Illinois.

"Kind of the matriarch of the family set it up and got the whole family to come out, I'm just the son-in-law. We just reserved all four of these campsites and drove a big convoy out here. Seems really cool, like nothing we've ever seen before, so it's pretty awesome. A lot of stuff to do," said Specht.

Even though his family booked the campsite six months in advance, the only availability was on weekdays. He said the price and quality are reasonable, and he'd be willing to pay more. It's his first time in Colorado and he said his family plans to visit again. 

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.