Limited budgets force state parks to survive on user fees

Picnic tables at Versailles State Park ( Photo/Makenna Mays)
Makenna Mays

INDIANAPOLIS (Statehouse File) – At least once a week Daniel May, a pastor at Church on the Rock in Dillsboro, sits under a park shelter prepping passages for his sermon or hiking one of the many trails at Versailles State Park.

“My wife and I go to a state park every week,” said May. “That’s part of our day off thing.”

Pastor Daniel May (submitted photo via

May, like hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers, finds solace in the rolling hills and winding trails of Versailles State Park.

Sitting on roughly 6,000 acres of land, Versailles State Park draws about a quarter of a million people per year. Maintaining Versailles, however, is not cheap, and provides an example of the funding challenges facing the park system across Indiana. They exist on limited state funds with a heavy reliance on user fees.

“It’s really no secret to anybody. Yeah, we could use more money to maintain our parks,” said Paul Sipples, property manager of Versailles State Park.

Twenty-eight state parks span Indiana. With the majority of their operating budget coming from user fees, they are 77 percent self-sufficient.

“A lot of these dollars that we do get go back into our budget with minimal support from the general fund,” said Sipples.

State parks and reservoirs are funded through the Department of Natural Resources, receiving about $9 million from the general fund, which are from tax dollars. The bulk of the budget comes from the special revenue fund, which is roughly $29 million from over the 2017-18 fiscal cycle.

The special revenue fund is generated through user fees and charges that come from camping, entrance, swimming pools, programs and other similar fees to use state park facilities, according to DNR Deputy Director Terry Coleman.

Kayaks available at Versailles State Park ( Photo/Makenna Mays)

“This blended fund is then used to pay salaries and benefits, utilities, vehicle and equipment fuel, equipment purchases, cleaning supplies,” Coleman said in a statement. “All of those things necessary to support property operations and guest services.”.

Indiana is among only 17 states that rely primarily on user fees to fund state parks, according to the National Association of State Park Directors' Annual Information Exchange. That puts Indiana in the company of Florida, Alabama and Wisconsin, among others.

Meanwhile, the public’s demand for the activities offered in state parks, such as hiking, boating and camping, have held steady or are rising, making them important for tourism and outdoor recreation.

“Sixteen million visit our state parks every year,” said Tim Maloney, senior policy director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

More help from the state’s general fund would allow for maintenance, building improvements and attractions that parks would like to act on, but don't have the budget for, according to Sipples.

Maloney believes that this lack of funding is partly because lawmakers aren’t committed to the state park system.

Picnic tables at Versailles State Park ( Photo/Makenna Mays)

“The budget has continued to be reduced even as the economy has improved, and as a result we have a backlog of need,” said Maloney.

However, some believe that it is hard to give a blanket statement and say that all state parks in Indiana across the board are underfunded.

“Some parks warrant more funding and receive more while others warrant less and receive less,” said Doug Noonan, a professor at IUPUI’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

There are state parks that require more money for upkeep, while others are more low maintenance.

Still, Noonan said, Indiana’s parks deserve financial support because they benefit all citizens and preserve natural and historic places.

State Rep. Sean Eberhart, chair of the committee of natural resources, said he believes that while our state parks are a little underfunded, they are one of the few departments that actually produce revenue, offsetting a good portion of the budget.

“I do believe that there are some improvements that we’d like to see and we just struggle to get some of those capital improvement dollars that we need to make those amenities even better,” said Eberhart, R-Shelby County.

However, even if elected officials wanted to provide the state park system with more money, there is not a simple solution.

One proposal includes seeking outside partners to provide financial support, but they come with a risk. Generating too much revenue could lead lawmakers to cut back funding from the general fund, Noonan said.

“Property managers are aware that the better they do on their own, the less support they might get from the state,” said Noonan.

Maloney said there is hope for change when it comes to increased funding, but there needs to be greater commitment by the state government to invest in natural resources because, simply put, state parks improve Indiana.

“They improve quality of life,” Maloney said.

Sipples, who has worked in the Department of Natural Resources for 32 years, believes that the state government is doing the best that they can with the current budget and the economy.

“They are trying to be responsible for tax dollars that are put into our park,” he said.

For avid park users like May, having an escape to nature in a place like Versailles is priceless. He visits the park at least three times a week where he can write, read his Bible and hike through the numerous trails.

“I come to Versailles mostly because of the proximity and terrain,” May said.

One of the many trails at Versailles State Park ( Photo/Makenna Mays)

Sipples said if his park is allotted more money, he would make improvements so people like May have a positive experience in the place so many love. That includes building overnight facilities for campers, constructing family cabins and improving overnight accommodations.

“People are always looking for a place to go and spend time and relax,” Sipples said.

Versailles is a welcome sanctuary to many local residents year-round, like Christina Johns, a resident of Shelby County, and her husband who visit Versailles a few times a year.

“I think it’s one of the more beautiful state parks,” said Johns, who appreciates the park’s size, location and relaxed atmosphere. Besides, it’s a welcome escape from technology.

“It’s a place to go for outdoor recreation and to not be stuck inside on phones all day,” said Johns.

Versailles State Park is the only park in Ripley County, so it gets both local and out-of-state traffic and provides some economic support for the community.

Sipples was employed by Versailles State Park while he was in school and has worked in several state parks since, but was fortunate enough to return to the park that inspired his career.

“I’m able to return to a park where I was encouraged to get into this career and to be able to return to my hometown,” Sipples said. “That’s a nice feeling.”

Sipples will continue to improve the park as needed such as restroom facility maintenance, and with any additional money perhaps add some new accommodations for future guests.

Versailles State Park may only be a blip when considering budgetary appropriations, but it plays a large part in the lives of the citizens of Ripley County. Daniel May says he will keep visiting Versailles his usual three times a week, where he will continue to hike and study.

“I’m trying to hike all the trails in the state parks in Indiana,” said May.

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