The number of people visiting Oregon’s state parks has skyrocketed during the past decade, hitting a record 51 million visits in 2016.
But the number of park rangers hasn’t changed much during the same period, officials said, leading to challenges in keeping parks clean and facilities up to date.
To remedy that, parks officials want to hire an additional 42 rangers and put an extra $1 million into the budget for maintaining and improving parks during the coming two years.
Money would come from the park’s main funding sources — the Oregon Lottery and fees from visitors and RV registration. Parks do not receive funding from the taxpayer general fund.
“We’re in a situation right now where our user fees are up and our lottery funds are stable,” Oregon Parks and Recreation Director Lisa Sumption said. “We have the budget to cover this without taking something else away. This is a good time to add staff to ensure visitors are having the best possible experience.”
The total amount OPRD is requesting for 2017-19 is $219.5 million. That’s up from a $201.9 million in 2015-17 and $181.5 million in 2011-13.
The need for more rangers is reflected in the numbers, officials said. Visitation is up 16 percent overall and 45 percent in the off-season — when parks doesn’t have access to seasonal staff — since 2007. But the number of full-time employees is only up 2.5 percent in the same period.
“If you were running a business and it was up 45 percent you’d put more resources into it,” Sumption said. “We have to make sure we have enough people on the ground to support the visitors.”
OPRD scaled back the number of new parks it has opened since 2013. The agency opened nine new parks from 2004 to 2013. Since that time, only one new park is planned, Sitka Sedge Natural Area, which should open this summer.
“We hit pause on new land acquisitions to ensure we were taking care of the system we already had,” Sumption said.
Parks officials acknowledged that asking for additional resources at a time when Oregon is facing a $1.6 billion shortfall was a tough sell.
“This is a tough call, asking for staff given the overall health of the Oregon budget,” OPRD spokesman Chris Havel said. “But we can’t put it off any more.”
Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for eight years. He is the author of the book “Hiking Southern Oregon” and can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.
Oregon Parks and Recreation Department expenditures per biennium
2015-17 (budgeted): $201.9M
2017-19 request: $219.5M
Money comes from: Oregon Lottery (47 percent), visitor fees / RV fees (47 percent), federal grants (6 percent)