Soon, cruise ships could anchor in Charleston Harbor

Tourists fill a tour boat headed to Fort Sumter. Soon, those tour boats could be used to tender passengers from cruise ships at anchor. File

When Lisa and Tim Atkins pack up the truck with hiking gear, load up the paddleboard and kayak, or strap the mountain bikes to the back of the camper, they’re likely headed for a state park.

The St. Stephen couple will show up at one of the 47 parks in South Carolina as often as a dozen times per year. Most of their camping is done there, Tim Atkins said, because of the price, and environs relatively less crowded than private parks and nearby natural areas.

“You’ve got the mountains. You’ve got the beach. You’ve got great trails in the Midlands. I wish we could do it more,” he said.

Asked about a downside, he has to think a few minutes.

“A lot of the restrooms and showers are kind of antiquated,” he said.

That’s not by design.

On the 75th anniversary of publicly managed lands in South Carolina, and the 100th anniversary of the national parks, both are in trouble — underfunded and consequently understaffed, falling behind in maintenance, pressured by government leaders to pay for themselves to operate.

On an annual budget of $29 million, South Carolina Parks has about a $100 million maintenance backlog, according to Phil Gaines, parks director, and the National Association of State Park Directors.

That’s despite spending $30 million in the past five years for infrastructure work such as sewer-related facility overhauls and repaving.

The bottom line is that with tighter budgets and legislators looking to cut nonessential services, parks and other public lands take a back seat to other industry when it comes to economic development — despite the economic value as well as quality-of-life return.

South Carolina Parks did not have a breakout number for the economic impact of the parks, but the overall impact from tourism is estimated at about $20 billion per year.

Meanwhile, the general trend in government mandates the move toward “self-sufficiency,” paying the operating budget completely with user fees and other revenue. The parks department, so far, is managing that better than others.

The state parks’ $29 million budget is little more than half as big as the budgets of neighboring Georgia and North Carolina, despite its 8.1 million visits per year — outdrawing Georgia’s 7.9 million, if only a fraction of North Carolina’s 17 million.

The department has managed to toe the line between revenue and operating expense, pulling in about $800,000 more than its $29 million budget in 2015. Most of that money went to deferred maintenance, Gaines said.

“Our model is different and our model works,” he said.

“Our state park system was really squeezed, and that’s understating it,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who was governor when the management philosophy change took place to balancing expenses and revenue. The parks were charging too little and spending too much, he said. “We turned it around.”

The state “is doing a great job of striking a balance between preserving natural and cultural heritage while generating income,” said Lewis Ledford of the national association.

At a price.

“Deferred maintenance continues to happen,” Gaines said. The department is scrambling for grant funding, foundation and business partnerships.

It used to be you could drive up to a park in South Carolina and get a campsite, Atkins said. For a popular park today, you’re smart to make a reservation and make it in advance. In 2015, the system drew a million more visitors than it had two years earlier.

As South Carolina’s population boomed from about 2.5 million in the 1970s to nearly 5 million today, open space has shrunk and the parks have been pressed more and more. As just one example, the growth of mountain biking as a sport not only put more pressure on the mountain parks but the Midlands parks, as well. The wear on the trails is harder, exacerbating erosion and demanding more maintenance, said Kenneth F. Backman, Clemson University professor in the Park, Recreation and Tourism Management Department.

Continual budget restrictions have forced cutbacks in staff, the condition of the parks themselves and, at times, safety, he said. Raising fees would put them out of the reach of more and more of the public they’re designed to serve.

“I personally feel parks should be funded to the fullest extent, back to the way they were in the 1980s and 1990s,” Backman said. “The economic impact in adjacent communities and regions has not been taken fully into consideration. It’s time the government figured out these public park resources are a valuable commodity that deserves as much attention as commercial development.”

Parks and other natural resources shouldn’t be made a priority in the state, Atkins said, not with other funding demands right now. But the economic impact numbers alone demonstrate the value of the investment to him.

“If they’re not a priority they should be moved up,” he said. “The shape they’re in, they’re not going to make it.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 843-937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.