More Trouble Headed Our Way?

By John McFerrin

In September, 2018, the West Virginia Legislative Auditor completed and delivered to the Legislature an audit of West Virginia’s State Park system.

The Audit found that the Park system is not self-sufficient.  It is around the middle of national rankings so far as self-sufficiency is concerned. Among states that do not charge an entrance fee, West Virginia is the closest to self-sufficiency.

The Audit also found that there are still unmet maintenance needs.  During the last session the Legislature gave the Park system authority to sell bonds.  The proceeds of the bonds will pay for a substantial fraction of the needed maintenance but will not pay for it all.

The Audit identified several sources of additional revenue, including more Legislative appropriations and some fees or excise taxes.  It did not recommend any specific fees but did give examples of fees that other states charge and dedicate the revenue to their parks.

The Audit made several recommendations.  First, it recommended that the Park system consider again charging entrance fees. The Audit referred to an earlier effort by the Division of Natural Resources to institute a pilot project of charging entrance fees. That project never came about because the Governor opposed it.

The Audit recommends that the Division of Natural Resources undertake a pilot project to charge entrance fees.  It also recommends that this time it make sure the Governor is on board with the effort before the Division goes ahead.

The Audit also recommends that the Director of the Division of Natural Resources be authorized to sell or lease park lands:

It is the Legislative Auditor’s opinion that in order to enhance the management of the State Park System, statutory authority should be granted to allow the DNR director to sell or lease park land and recreational facilities when it is in the best interest of the Park System.  Provisions could be made to require such transactions to be approved by a legislative committee.  Any decision to sell park land or timber should also take into consideration the impact of negative public perception and attendance numbers in the parks. Furthermore, DNR should consider the impact of the loss of scenic, cultural, archaeological and/or historical areas prior to considering any sales or leases of park lands.

The recommendation does not directly say that the director should be authorized to sell the timber.  The paragraph does contain a warning of the “negative public perception” if timber is sold.

Context is important here.  The previous paragraph talks about how much West Virginia could expect to make from timber sales on State Parks.  That paragraph also contains this sentence: “The revenue generated from timber sales could be reinvested into the park system.”  Given this context, interpreting this report as a recommendation by the Legislative Auditor that West Virginia timber in its State Parks would require only a slightly creative reading.

Maybe this Audit doesn’t mean anything.  Maybe it is one of those reports that the Legislature says, “Thank you very much” and then files it away, never to be heard from again.

Then again, maybe the Audit is something.  The 2018 Legislature brought us a serious effort, backed by the Governor, to timber in the State Parks.  Maybe the Audit is a reminder to prick up our ears, keep sniffing the wind, and not throw away our picket signs.