Half of Oklahoma state parks could close with budget cuts

OKLAHOMA CITY - With state agencies told to brace for significant funding cuts, the tourism industry in Oklahoma is expecting the worst.

In an email provided to NewsChannel 4, the director of the the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department told his staff to be prepared should the state be forced to shoulder yet another decrease in funding.

At risk of becoming victims of the cuts: 16 state parks, one state golf course, 80 full-time employees, the Oklahoma Today magazine and the Miami Travel Information center.

"We're not DPS, we're not mental health, we're not DHS, but we still play an important role in the streets of Oklahoma," said spokeswoman Leslie Blair, "and provide Oklahoma families the chance to get out and enjoy the great outdoors."

Proposed park closings include:

  • Talimena
  • Great Plains State Park
  • Cherokee Landing State Park
  • Natural Falls State Park
  • Red Rock Canyon State Park
  • Great Salt Plains State Park
  • Lake Eufaula State Park
  • Lake Wister State Park
  • Alabaster Caverns State Park
  • McGee Creek State Park
  • Foss Lake State Park
  • Osage Hills State Park
  • Greenleaf State Park
  • Lake Texoma State Park
  • Grand Lake State Park
  • Grand Cherokee Golf Course
  • Boiling Springs State Park

The department evaluated which parks have the fewest visitors and bring in the least amount of revenue.

Parks make up about two-thirds of the department's budget.

Since 2009, the department has seen a 38 percent budget cut, Blair said, totaling roughly $13.5 million.

Tourism is the state's third largest industry.

"It’s a huge driver of the economy," Blair said. "It’s new revenue coming into the state that provides additional economic opportunity for these smaller communities and for the state as a whole."

The department's executive director so far calls the cuts "hypothetical," but other agencies have developed similarly grim assessments of how a so-called "worst-case scenario" cut would affect them.

The Department of Public Safety and Oklahoma Highway Patrol called their situation a "public safety crisis" last week.

"We want to encourage people to get out and explore all that Oklahoma has to offer," Blair said. "It’s truly devastating and heartbreaking to think about closing these parks."

The parks would not necessarily close or vanish.

They may be handed over to municipalities, which may maintain the grounds differently.

The state has taken pride in keeping its facilities clean and in good condition, Blair said.

For families taking in Red Rock Canyon State Park Monday, the news of a potentially crippling cut was disappointing.

"I can understand where you have to cut somewhere in the budget shortfall," said Jason Schelke. "But, with that said, it would still be a travesty if we cut those parks out. These are places for families to go and enjoy this stuff."

Families value the opportunity to pry their children away from technology and screens, Schelke said.

For Josh Morris, taking his family back to the place he camped as a boy scout, a reduction in park space could take the family elsewhere.

"Living in the Tulsa area, I’d say it would be likely that we’d probably go to Arkansas as a result of not being able to find a place closer to home," Morris said, adding the Oklahoma parks would likely become more crowded. "Choices have to be made, but it would be disappointing to see the parks not open to the public."