3 On Your Side Investigates: The State of Our Parks

“There’s probably a lot of blame to go around...”
Published: Jul. 15, 2021 at 9:23 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The Mississippi State Park System, created in 1934, is in trouble. That’s the takeaway from the PEER review of the system released in May.

The report states, from fiscal year 2018 to 2020, state park operations suffered a net loss of almost 4 million dollars. The report is 71 pages long, but here are the 6 conclusions, in short:

- Can’t operate without annual funding

- Staffing is down

- No accountability with honesty boxes

- Maintenance schedules needed

- Strategic marketing plan needed

- Competition from other parks and camping options is hurting state parks.

In this 3 On Your Side investigation, we take a deeper dive into the situation, talk with state lawmakers and park officials to find out how it got this way and what’s being done to turn it around.

Asked what reason families who’ve been coming to Roosevelt State Park for years are giving for not coming back now, Brian Ferguson said, “It’s just the lack of maintenance here.”

Ferguson is Director of Administrative Services for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks and he knows his agency’s work is cut out for them. He and other agency officials gave us a look at the issues with Roosevelt State Park in Morton - 1 of 5 slated for Phase-one rehabilitation

”Well, we can kind of just start on the outside of here and just look at the top, just see the exterior damages that’s there...just a long time since we’ve had any structural repairs to this.” said Ferguson.

It’s just as needy inside, with rusting, outdated appliances, flooring, locks, walls and furnishing. Ferguson agreed you can’t just go in and start repairing these cabins routinely.

He said, “Absolutely, these are CCC cabins, so it’s an historical thing that has to be done to these too, so we want to preserve the history of the cabin.”

And Ferguson said it’s not cheap. “So a cabin like this to remodel it would cost us about a 120-thousand-dollars.”

There are 24 state parks throughout Mississippi and a PEER Report released in May shows attendance dropped from over 4 million in 2000 to just over one million in 2019. So, what happened? How did it get this way? Who is to blame?

”There’s probably a lot of blame to go around...” said Senator Angela Hill.

Hill of Picayune served on the Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks committee for 8 years. An avid camper herself, Hill said she noticed the decline during tours of the facilities.

She said, ”There’s probably failure on the side of the legislature and some on the side of the agency, because I think that both could do better when it comes to state parks.”

Representative Becky Currie of Brookhaven said, ”I was concerned about the PEER report, but, I have tell you, I’ve been concerned for over a year now with our state parks. You know, I think the administration of Wildlife and Fisheries put state parks on the back burner and they did it way too long and now we have to come up with 47-million-dollars to get our state parks where they should’ve been and I hate that we didn’t do it over the years.”

I sat down with Jennifer Head, the Budget Administrator for the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to get the agency’s side of the story.

Jennifer Head said, ”We have had challenges over the past several years with declining conditions, our structures in our parks, whether it be cabins or campsites, mainly that is do to lack of funding.”

She continued, ”Since fiscal year 2000, we’ve been cut 60-percent in funding. That’s significant, so things are not as they were back then.”

”With the funding decreases, we also had a decrease in positions. We’ve had a 70-percent decrease in positions.” said Head.

Representative Becky Currie said, ”This has not been a top priority for them, so, over the years, they have let these cabins and bathroom facilities just really go down and it’s very embarrassing and I have to say that the legislature did not do a very good job in making sure they had the funds to take care of them. But when you come to the legislature to ask for your appropriations, we can’t read your mind, so you have to ask for those things..”

Currie continued, ”And I’m Chair of tourism and we have lost a lot of money because they don’t come to our parks and people from Mississippi go out of state. We used to have a huge amount of traffic of people from out of state coming to Mississippi state parks and now we don’t have that and it’s just imperative we get this fixed.”

Money has now been allocated to begin the upgrades and the agency has identified five state parks for Phase-1. They are Paul B. Johnson, Percy Quin, Roosevelt, Clarkco and Natchez State Park.

Senator Hill said, ”You look at Natchez State Park, for instance, that’s one of the parks that lost a lot of money. That is a terrific state park. Natchez State Park could be promoted along with the pilgrimages that they have over the spring and the fall and the Christmas pilgrimages. There’s Windsor Ruins. There’s so many historic things. Alcorn University. There’s so many things that could be tied together to promote these state parks. You got Canemount for hunting over there now, so I am just floored that state parks like Natchez is losing that amount of money, because that is a fine, fine park.”

It’s a point not lost on Jennifer Head.

”I think another item that we need to build into our day-to-day operations is marketing. We do not have a, per say, marketing budget, so everything we do is limited to what we can do in house,” she said.

Head said, ”Whenever your funding is cut, you know, our focus had been on our people. We want to do what we can for our people, so some of the other things kinda have to fall out of the budget, and marketing has been one of those things so we’ve tried to do as much as we can through social media, our webpage, word of mouth, those type of things and we’re working with partners throughout the state.”

Senator Hill says now is the time to act because....

”RV sales are exploding. I mean, the pandemic has done so much to promote camping and the outdoors that this is a perfect time, I think, for us to really, really focus on doing what we need to do to upgrade state parks.”

Head said, ”We have a story to tell and we want to tell it and we want to tell the citizens that, come see us! We need the support and we want the support and we are making improvements as we go.”

One point everyone agrees on is this:

Ferguson said, ”We have some of the most beautiful parks and lands and grounds, and the state of Mississippi has some of the most beautiful grounds in the country and if we can get our cabins and those living spaces comparable to other states, there’s no doubt that we’ll have customers look at these facilities all through the week and weekends.”

Head wants you to know the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks is hiring.

She said the current recruiting opportunities are posted through the Mississippi State Personnel Board and you can access that link by clicking on www.mspb.ms.gov or calling the Mississippi State Parks office number. It’s 601-432-2219.

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