As the government belt-tightening goes on at a pace that Weight Watchers likely wishes it could guarantee to its clients, the climate exists where some of our precious outdoors resources are going to be left in a very precarious position.
It is much more politically palatable to reduce access to certain parks and recreation areas than it is to cut payrolls by decreasing the staff or limiting benefits. Both roads have more than their share of potholes and friction, but slashing jobs during a period of sustained painfully high unemployment seems to be the path of most resistance.
We have experienced this trail of tears before. In 2009, a number of Ohio's most popular historic sites went dark for a period of time to save money. Despite the pleas of parks and wildlife advocates, who made the logical contention that it is during tough times that people utilize parks, recreation areas and historic sites more than ever, these areas were temporarily closed in a cost-saving measure.
At other Ohio forests, parks and popular scenic areas, services were reduced or maintenance was delayed or canceled as another means of coping with the slashed budgets. Ohio was not and is not alone in this difficult quandary.
Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to close 220 state parks that attract millions of visitors per year when he was coping with that state's astronomical budget shortfalls. Oklahoma, North Carolina, Illinois and our neighbor to the north, Michigan, are just a sampling of the states that have been dealing with very similar problems, though not in the same financial ballpark as California.
In 2009, Michigan had more than 200 infrastructure projects on its list of work that needed to be done in an expedited manner, at a cost of about $340 million, to keep its parks and recreation areas safe and up to date. There were leaking roofs, weakened bridges, flood damaged foundations, unsafe fishing piers and huge erosion problems. The list also included state park buildings with outdated and dangerous wiring, leaking toilets and non-functioning showers.
Almost all of the projects had to be canceled or delayed indefinitely due to the shortage of funds. A dozen state forest campgrounds in the northern part of Michigan were padlocked since there was no money to operate them.
Last year, routine maintenance to cross-country ski trails, hiking routes and horseback riding trails was scrubbed from the budget.
For at least the foreseeable future, tough times and tight budgets for our parks and recreation areas will be the norm here in Ohio and throughout the nation. But there is hope for keeping these areas from deteriorating or being destroyed by the neglect of a funding drought.
The solution is people, and not a government-mandated work force of people, but a volunteer army of sorts. Many individual have emotional and historical investments in our public areas, and seem at the ready to assume some of the responsibility to care for these resources.
For years, individuals, loose collections of conservation-minded folks, scout groups and clubs have jumped in and cleaned up sections of riverbank, maintained areas along highways or taken on the responsibility of mowing small parks and picnic grounds.
The fish cleaning house on the grounds of South Bass Island State Park was in desperate need of repairs, and with scant resources available to maintain even minimal services, a few regular visitors to the scenic and rustic locale took it upon themselves and fixed it. They supplied the manpower and materials, and the job was done much faster than if it had traversed the fiscal bureaucratic highway.
Ohio's parks, campgrounds, historic places and scenic areas can not be managed and maintained by an all-volunteer workforce. The pros are needed to provide some leadership, a vital element in any undertaking. But it is conceivable that those with an attachment to these outdoors treasures are certainly capable and willing to help bridge the expanding gap between available funding and necessary care.