Missouri’s recent state park windfall, which came at the end of former Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s tenure, is in jeopardy.
Four of the parks, scattered across the Ozarks, were shuttered or never opened. Republican legislators said there just isn’t the money to maintain the parks and some have suggested selling the land to private developers.
But all of those parks are near active mining operations, raising fears among environmentalists that now-protected land will become a for-profit enterprise.
Nixon, who said he wanted to be remembered for promoting and growing the state park system, opened or announced seven parks last year. That brought Missouri’s total to 92, compared to 141 in Illinois and 26 in Kansas.
But three of those — Eleven Point, Bryant Creek, Ozark Mountain — never opened and Jay Nixon State Park was closed in February due to lack of markers and access and safety issues. Republican lawmakers also were critical of Nixon using federal money intended for cleaning up lead mining pollution to buy land for Eleven Point.
Putting the land up for sale would likely be an appealing option for the Department of Natural Resources, which operates the state park system, because those four haven’t been developed yet.
State parks director Ben Ellis said the agency is looking at all options, adding that existing parks need “maintenance and repair.”
“These additions to our park system came with no additional staff and no additional funding,” he said. “That in itself makes it a challenge to continue to provide the level of service that we like to provide our customers, the people who use Missouri state parks.”
The current state budget, which runs through June 30, puts nearly $53 million into the state park system.
Republican Rep. Randy Pietzman of Troy sponsored a failed bill this year to place a moratorium on state park growth. He said he sees nothing wrong with selling unused park land.
“If it’s just a piece of property out somewhere that they acquired and they need the money somewhere else and they can get a decent price for it, yeah, I would be for selling it,” Pietzman said. “I’m kind of a free market guy. To me, if they’re not doing anything illegal, then I don’t see a problem with them buying it.”
If there is a sale, mining companies could be among the first in line, though Pietzman said he's not aware of any companies making inquiries. A spokesperson with the Department of Natural Resources said they don't know of any plans to expand mining operations around any of the parks in question.
Oregon County in south central Missouri is home to several iron mines and at least one lead mine. It’s also where Eleven Point State Park, intended to be a canoeing and rafting destination, is located.
John Hickey of the Missouri Sierra Club said the state should let Missouri residents enjoy the park.
“These state parks were bought with the notion that they would be minimally developed,” he said. “It’s not expensive to keep these state parks because the trees are going to grow on their own; the sun is going to shine on its own.”
He also argued there’s no need to sell, pointing out that November’s overwhelming statewide vote to renew a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for parks shows Missouri residents’ strong desire to support parks.
“Any rationale that state government is putting out, saying, ‘Here’s what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to sell it,’ we don’t think it’s legitimate,” he said. “There’s plenty of money in state government to maintain state parks.”
Roger Fisher is a retiree in Jefferson City who spends time every week walking, and sometimes biking, on the Katy Trail, which is part of the state park system. He’s in favor of adding more parks, but only if the state can afford it.
“Go ahead and do the parks if you can,” he said, “but maybe there are other things (that) I can see people would think would take priority, that’s more important than that when they have a hard time making ends meet, when you’re spending this money for parks.”
Gov. Eric Greitens’ administration didn’t return calls seeking comment on the park system, which hasn’t been a priority for the Republican so far.
Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport