A new drive to enhance Alabama’s state parks could lead to tens of millions of dollars of improvements at the many beloved and frequently visited facilities across the state.
Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday joined local and state officials and corporate leaders at Oak Mountain State Park to announce the effort.
“Alabamians love and cherish the state parks, and we must make sure they are maintained and available for generations to come,” Ivey said.
The governor outlined a proposed $80 million bond issue for park improvements that is pending before the Alabama Legislature. If approved by lawmakers this session, the constitutional amendment would go before voters next year for final blessing.
“I support the use of state bonds to make the needed enhancements throughout the state parks system,” Ivey said.
During Thursday’s event, the nonprofit Alabama State Parks Foundation announced a corporate giving campaign with the goal of raising an additional $14 million for park improvements.
The parks foundation launched its fund drive by announcing pledges of $250,000 by Buffalo Rock Company and $100,000 from the Alabama Power Foundation. The parks foundation hopes to reach its $14 million goal within five years.
“Since the creation of the Alabama State Parks Foundation in 2018, we have worked to improve and enhance our state parks, and our corporate giving campaign is another significant and important step for our organization,” said Dan Hendricks, parks foundation president. “I also applaud and thank Gov. Ivey for her visionary leadership and support of the state parks system.
“We believe this innovative public-private partnership will maximize our efforts to help the Alabama state parks system maintain its place as one of the state’s true treasures,” Hendricks said.
According to a news release from the state parks foundation, the bond issue, if approved, and the parks foundation fundraising drive are designed to help fast-track projects that would expand campgrounds, add cabins and improve internet connectivity at the parks, among other priorities.
Alabama’s 21 state parks attracted a record 6.27 million visitors in fiscal 2020, just when the pandemic sparked a surge in people seeking safe, healthy outdoor recreation.
Altogether, the state parks comprise some 48,000 acres ranging from Gulf Coast beaches to Appalachian mountain vistas to scenic lakes. The parks offer a host of day-use activities, including hiking, fishing, mountain biking, swimming, horseback riding, golf and zip lines, as well as a variety of lodging, including hotels and camping.
The parks rely on user fees to fund the vast majority – 80%-90% annually – of park operations and maintenance, with additional support from donors.
In addition to being subject to the vagaries of user fees and contributions, state park finances can be adversely affected by natural disasters, such as last month’s tornado that caused significant damage at Oak Mountain. Last year, Gulf State Park suffered damage from Hurricane Sally and in December 2019, a tornado damaged campground and day-use areas at Joe Wheeler State Park.
“Our state parks system is run as efficiently as ever, but there are plenty of needs in every one of the 21 parks – both the small and larger parks,” said Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “What Gov. Ivey and the Alabama State Parks Foundation have done is create a funding framework for how we can modernize and enhance an already dynamic state parks system and make it better than ever.
“We plan to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money, as well as funds so generously donated by the corporate community,” Blankenship added. “Our state parks offer so many amazing outdoors adventures for all Alabamians, and we appreciate so many people working so hard to help us continue that legacy.”