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Oregon State Parks faces uphill financial climb amid pandemic

The Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department estimates a shortfall of up to $22 million out of a $100-million operating budget.

SALEM, Ore. — Long before the hot weather moves in for the weekend, the region’s state parks have been feeling the heat for some time, particularly in Oregon.

“The state park system was shut down from March to May, and some places into June, and some places we’re still not open. So we’re not earning revenue we expected,” said Chris Havel, spokesperson for the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department.

The department isn’t funded by taxes, instead relying heavily on recreational vehicle license plate fees, park visitor fees and lottery money.

“Lottery has taken a pretty big hit, people probably understand that,” Havel said.

Havel said the state parks work off of a two-year budget. The current cycle goes through June 2021. Current projections show a shortfall of up to $22 million out of a $100-million operating budget. It’s forced layoffs and paused the typical things they do every year -- repairs, park improvements and expansions.

“Service has definitely suffered. Our staff are doing heroic work, and I don’t use that word lightly…I can’t recall the last time I actually used that word,” Havel said.

With more people heading outdoors, it’s evident the mental and physical break is needed. But those visits also come with a level of personal responsibility.

“We’re seeing more things like takeout litter and face coverings that end up on the ground, the disposable ones. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of the normal trash that people produce when they visit,” said Havel. “You can help us take care of all of that.”

He points to 2017 as an example of people taking care of parks, when new areas were opened up to allow crowds to enjoy the total solar eclipse that August.

“They took such good care of those areas, we were flabbergasted. There was no trash left behind afterwards and the ground was pristine, and we were like, ‘what just happened?’ Well what happened was, people bound together in this common experience and they rose to the challenge of protecting parks that they knew wouldn’t otherwise be available to them, and it worked,” he said. “It’s possible to do it when people try.”

Like the rest of the economy, funding Oregon’s state parks is going to be a slow climb. However, there’s also a hidden opportunity to take a look at how to divide future costs in the years to come. Havel said the department has taken notice.

“What’s fair? How do we maintain equity in the system? Make sure anybody, regardless of means, has a chance to enjoy the state park system. We are looking at that,” he said. “We’ll be coming back to Oregonians and having those discussions in a more public forum as soon as we can start getting together again and start having these conversations.”

To check if a day use area is open or to reserve a campsite, visit stateparks.oregon.gov.

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