The future of Alabama’s state park system is perhaps brighter than it’s ever been, according to Dan Hendricks, president of the newly formed Alabama State Parks Foundation. Every bit the optimist and certainly passionate about state parks, Hendricks is still quick to recall how bleak the landscape was just a few years ago.
In 2015, State Parks Director Greg Lein began a campaign to highlight the consequences of the state’s five-year practice of transferring revenue from the park system to balance its own general fund. During fiscal years 2012 and 2013, Lein wrote in an editorial at the time, $12 million was siphoned from park administrative and maintenance funds to help cover shortfalls in Montgomery, while there was a proposal to transfer another $10.4 million more.
Lein explained the park system’s cash balance was “at its lowest point since 2000” and if the transfers continued, park services would be curtailed, hours would be cut and the least-profitable state parks would likely be closed indefinitely.
But in 2016 two things happened — independent, but related — that essentially put Lein’s warnings to bed.
First, 79 percent of voters in the November general election approved Statewide Amendment 2, which, among other things, prohibited “any monies currently designated pursuant to statute for the use of the state parks system from being transferred for another purpose other than the support, upkeep and maintenance of the state parks system.”
Second, there was an “outpouring of support from citizens who love and appreciate their state parks” who went a step further and committed to forming a 501(c)(3).
As a result, “[the financial] situation has dramatically improved,” Hendricks told Lagniappe recently. Support for the amendment indicated citizens “appreciate the parks and even supported them at a level that exceeded the support of Donald Trump in that election. That was a delightful surprise for a lot of us, because we didn’t realize the parks were loved that much.”
According to the 2018 – 2019 state budget, parks are expected to generate — and keep — $37.4 million from programs and fees, while another $8.8 million will be provided from the State Parks Fund generated by cigarette and miscellaneous taxes.
But the foundation is the cherry on top, Hendricks said.
“Our purpose is to try to leverage public-private partnerships,” he said. “It’s a model used across the nation for years now. We’re maybe the 47th or 48th state park foundation. We’ve come late to the game but we’re going to catch up. We launched a campaign to identify individuals who love the parks and wanted to become ‘first friends’ and founding members and we have about 360 individuals who contacted us immediately with gifts and volunteering time.”
The foundation is still a long way from where it intends to be, Hendricks admitted, but along with the passage of Amendment 2, it aims to support the park system for generations to come. From his perspective, it’s already making an impact.
“One wonderful thing that happened after kickoff was an individual contacted me with a gift to honor their father,” Hendricks said. James William McFarland was a prominent Tuscaloosa businessman active in state and national politics who passed away in 2008. In recognition of memories the family made at Lake Lurleen State Park, the McFarland family took advantage of the foundation’s gift program to provide a donation substantial enough to create a new walking trail named in his honor, which is scheduled to debut later this year.
Along with trails, donors can also sponsor cabin construction, boat purchases and scholarships, to name a few opportunities. There are options to donate to a specific park or the park system as a whole.
“People can actually restrict a gift to a particular park,” Hendricks explained. “We’ve had a number of those already. They simply go into an account that designates that charitable gift to a particular park and the park superintendent, in consultation with the state park director, determines where that money goes … It’s a kind of image of how the parks really do connect with people’s hearts and the things they love.”
In lieu of financial gifts, donors can also volunteer their time.
The foundation’s 15-member board of directors comprises “prominent leaders and philanthropists who work closely with state parks to try to make them better and improve their future,” Hendricks said. Both he and Lein are on the board. Lein serves as treasurer. More information on the board and foundation is available by visiting asparksfoundation.org or by calling 334-557-0150.
While the foundation is still seeking donations of both time and money from people interested in becoming “first friends” and founding members, there are also long-term plans to grow beyond individual donors.
“Our strategic plan involves program called ‘First Corporate Partners’ and what we would like to do is divide the state into seven or so different zones, then identify the communities in those zones where the parks lie and try to form partnerships with municipalities, corporations, businesses and individuals who have the greatest stake in the future of that park and in getting people to the parks to enjoy them,” he said. “We’re in the process now of identifying ways we can facilitate rallying the community to try to create additional facilities that will bring people to the parks and become bridges for them to enjoy the parks.”
According to Lein’s editorial, a 2014 economic impact study performed by the University of Alabama suggested there was a tenfold return on investment in state parks, which that year recorded “4.6 million visitor occurrences.” As secure revenue from fees and new donations from the foundation continue to make an impact, Hendricks hopes even more people — new people — will be drawn to the parks.
“One of the wonderful things about parks is most people can’t afford to belong to a country club, most people can’t afford to spend an enormous amount of money on a vacation when they have children,” he said, noting how they were created after President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. “His vision was the land, set aside for public interest, would be every man’s dream of a wonderful vacation that wouldn’t cost too much. And to that extent, I love not only the parks individually, but I love the principle of the parks belonging to every person in the state …. To that extent, there are many services the government provides, but this is one that is green and recreational and joyful in so many different ways and we’re proud of it but we want to make it even better,” he said.
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