By Ashbel S. Green
of The Oregonian staff
SALEM - As many as 40 of Oregon's least-used parks might close after Labor Day because the state is running short of money.
One cause of the estimated $3.6 million deficit appears to be camping fees, which have become so high in some state parks that campers are staying at private campgrounds instead.
The state Parks and Recreation Department relies heavily on fees - they provide more than 70 percent of the two-year, $60 million state parks budget for 1995-97. Overnight camping fees are as high as $22 in some of the most popular parks.
The state parks staff has not developed a list of closures, but officials said popular parks such as Champoeg, Silver Falls and most coastal parks make money and would stay open.
"It's not going to be the flagships," said Robert L. Meinen, the Parks and Recreation Department director. "It's not going to be the areas that generate a lot of revenue."
Officials said virtually all parks that require reservations for camping would not be in danger of closing.
The most likely candidates are the smaller, sometimes undeveloped parks that do not earn much money but drain resources because they must be maintained. For example, parks such as Bald Peak near Newberg and Erratic Rock near Sheridan - both free day-use parks - would be considered for closure.
Parks officials cannot remember when the state has closed one of its 220 parks. The Parks and Recreation Commission will make a preliminary decision at its Friday meeting.
Although closing parks is unprecedented, few alternatives seem viable. Increasing fees has been all but ruled out because such a move probably would further discourage visitors.
"We don't think there is public support for higher fees," Meinen said. "The private market in some cases is actually lower."
Another option would be to ask the Legislative Emergency Board for money. But the board, which handles fiscal matters when the Legislature isn't in session, already faces multimillion-dollar requests for
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Parks: Legislative committee
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unlikely to come to the rescue
Parks: Legislative committee
schools and prisons, both higher priorities.
"Right now, with the other issues we're facing, the E-Board is going to be very reluctant to give them additional money," said Sen. Neil Bryant, R-Bend, a board member.
If the Parks and Recreation Commission decides to go ahead with the closure plan, the staff will come up with a proposed list of closures by July and will hold more than a dozen public forums around the state. The plan could be made final in the commission's August meeting.
As many as 35 layoffs could result.
Bob Applegate, spokesman for Gov. John Kitzhaber, said the proposal is reasonable under the circumstances.
"It's responsible and meets the needs of the shortfall," Applegate said.
Applegate said the decision to close parks was not final, but he ruled out asking the Emergency Board for more money.
Budget problems started in 1980, when voters decided gasoline taxes should no longer pay for parks. After voters cut property taxes in 1990, parks became increasingly reliant on fees - $52 million of the state's $60 million 1995-97 budget.
But high fees are not the only problem. Flood damage has cost the department an estimated $500,000 in lost revenues. The department also gets a share of motor home vehicle registrations. Its share is down $700,000, leading officials to think many RV owners are using less-expensive temporary trip permits to avoid the higher registration fees.
High gasoline prices also may be hurting state parks.
Meinen said the department for years has neglected maintenance on some of the most popular parks to try to keep all the parks open. The Parks and Recreation Commission, in considering the closures, will be deciding whether quality is more important than quantity.
"We can't continue to bleed all the parks," Meinen said.
Commission member Betsy McCool said closing parks was a last resort.
"It is a desperate situation," McCool said.
Ashbel S. Green can be reached by phone at 221-8234, by mail at 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, Ore. 97201, or by e-mail at TonyGreen@news.oregonian.com.
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