New Missouri State Parks Caught in Partisan Squabble

Outdoor-industry supporters say investment in new state parks could kickstart rural economies. But the Republican state Legislature says former Democratic Governor Jay Nixon misspent funds for the parks. While the fight unfolds, park development is on hold.

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Brian Sloss hopes the creation of a new state park in the Ozarks could help his part of southern Missouri develop economically.

That is, if the state Legislature doesn’t sell the property before it’s developed and opened to the public.

“What this area lacks from being able to maximize tourism and recreation is infrastructure,” said Sloss, who operates Eleven Point Flyfishing in rural Oregon County in the Missouri Ozarks.

Missouri voters seem to agree with Sloss’ conclusion. In 2016, four out of five Missouri voters re-affirmed that they want a portion of sales tax to pay for state parks and soil preservation. The program, which has operated since 1984, passed in every county in the state.

But the state Legislature seems less enthusiastic about new state-park development. For each of the last three sessions, Missouri Republican legislators have tried unsuccessfully to sell off the new state park and other land purchased during the administration of the former governor, a Democrat.

Sloss said southern Missouri, one of the most economically impoverished parts of the state, has abundant opportunities but limited services for outdoor recreation. The flyfishing guide and operator of a cottage rental business has big hopes for ways the not-yet-opened Eleven Point State Park can fill some of those infrastructure needs while attracting more tourism.

“There’s a lack of RV hook-ups near the river, a lack of electricity for campers,” Sloss said. “There’s a stone mansion that could be restored into a lodge and museum, houses on the property for park staff and researchers or holding conferences, a massive barn that would be a great destination for weddings and events.”

Eleven Point State Park. (Photo source: mostateparks.com)

The Eleven Point State Park property was visited by the Beatles more than 50 years ago when it was the Pigman Ranch. Sloss said that many people in the region feel that capitalizing on this Beatles visit could draw in a large annual music festival, as has been done successfully in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas.

These opportunities for capitalizing on the growing rural outdoor recreation economy were challenged this year in the Missouri state legislative session, with the Republican-led House of Representatives voting on party lines 102-38 to sell the Eleven Point State Park. The park was purchased with mining-settlement funds toward the end of Nixon’s last term.

Republicans said Nixon misspent the money, which should have gone directly to communities that were harmed by the mining practices.

A message from the Rural Assembly

Jay Nixon State Park, which is listed on mostateparks.com as currently closed. (Photo source: mostateparks.com)

Nixon, who held the office from 2009-2017, also used state resources to create Jay Nixon State Park in Reynolds County, Ozark Mountain State Park in Taney County, and Bryant Creek State Park in Douglas County. The process for developing and opening all four new state parks was halted by Missouri’s growing Republican majority after the 2016 election.

“It doesn’t make economic sense, doesn’t make common sense, to sell off state parks,” Sloss said. “The fact of the matter is that once the state bought the land, and this property (the Eleven Point State Park) was on the market for many years before that. To sell off this park now, the people of Missouri would probably lose a lot of money.”

Sloss does say former Governor Nixon could have been more forthcoming during the park purchase process. Because some acquisitions were done with the use of mining settlement funds, they bypassed normal administrative and public comment procedures.

Opponents to selling off the new Missouri State Parks point to the 2016 referendum on the question of continuing the state’s 1/10-of-a-cent state sales tax supporting parks and soil conservation. In the same election with a Republican sweep, Missourians voted 80% to 20% to preserve the park-supporting tax. Every county, rural and urban, had a majority vote in favor of continuing the parks and soils sales tax.

“The vast majority of Missourians value our public lands, our conservation lands for outdoor recreation, especially our state parks,” said Cody Cass, state chapter leader for the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA). “When we organized our BHA chapter, this very issue of possible sales of four state parks was one of four priorities. There is overwhelming public support. The Republican led majority in the state is attempting to go against the vast majority of the people’s opinion.”

Cass said BHA is one of many conservation groups working to support public lands in the state, and his group has grown from 100 member to 400 since its founding just a year ago. Opposition to selling state parks has helped to fuel the group’s growth. “To know that we have a piece of state land, public land, that we can’t access, that’s just not right,” Cass said.

Proponents of the parks point out that the money spent to build them is returned many times over through tourism. According the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which studied the economic impact of parks in 2012, the Missouri state park system attracts more than 18 million visitors annually to parks and historic sites. Those visitors are good for the economy, according to the report.

Total annual expenditures of state park visitors in 2011 were approximately $778 million. The overall economic impact of these expenditures is estimated at $1.02 billion in sales, $307 million in payroll and related income, and $123 million in federal, state and local taxes. Also, visitors’ expenditures support 14,535 jobs. For every dollar spent by Missouri State Parks to operate the state park system, Missouri’s economy saw a $26 return on investment. These impacts show that Missouri state parks enhance our state’s economy as well as improve visitor’s health and well-being.

Missouri’s state park economic performance mirrors national statistics for economic growth in some rural communities. As reported earlier by Daily Yonder, rural counties with strong recreation activities have begun to add population again, after a dip for several years after the Great Recession of 2008. The outdoor recreation industry, according to the Department of Commerce, is also larger in size than the agriculture and fossil fuel mining and drilling sectors.

In Missouri, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) reports that the outdoor recreation economy is responsible for $14.9 billion in consumer spending annually, 133,000 direct jobs, $4.6 billion in wages and salaries and $889 million in state and local tax revenues.

A message from the Rural Assembly

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