TUPELO • As the weather warms up, both trees and lawns turn more and more green, and minds turn to spending time in the great outdoors.
It’s a great time to go out to one of the Mississippi’s 25 state parks. They offer camping, fishing, skiing, disc golf and plenty of trails winding their way through the Mississippi countryside.
Even though the parks compete with electronic and technological advances for people’s attention, visitation numbers have remained steady. Over the last five years, officials say around 1 million people have visited the state parks.
They are considered hidden gems, but cutbacks in both funding and staffing have put the parks in a bad situation. Without the money and manpower to handle routine maintenance, buildings and infrastructure are suffering.
“Our biggest need is infrastructure – waste water, water wells, sewer systems and electrical upgrades in RV camps,” said Jennifer Head, the parks liaison to the state legislature. “We have numerous roofs in dire need of work. We have 600-plus structures in desperate need of repair or replacement. That includes bathhouses, cabins, lodges, pavilions and picnic areas.”
Head and officials with the state Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks were hopeful that the state legislature this year would reverse a trend that over the last decade has nearly cut the state park budget in half. In the last several years, the number of full-time state park employees has dropped from 193 to 110, a decrease of 43 percent.
While one funding bill did provide $4 million for dam repairs, officials were hoping an amendment by Sen. J.P. Wilemon, D-Belmont, would provide money for improvements to the state parks. The original amendment set aside $10 million for improvements at state-owned properties. By the time the politicking was over, the amount had dropped to just $397,000, and that was earmarked for the costs of the Capitol Police.
In the end, the legislature set aside $1 million for Buccaneer State Park in Waveland and another $500,000 for Tishomingo State Park to repair and renovate infrastructure and cabins and the suspension bridge.
The other parks will have to make do with what they have to deal with infrastructure problems and maintenance issues that keep getting pushed back by the lack of funds.
“We don’t have the operating budget to do the deferred maintenance,” Head said. “Our general fund keeps getting cut, so we don’t have a capital fund for the maintenance either.”
Park managers and their staff work hard to make sure the parks are safe and aesthetically appealing to all visitors. Officials know that in this age of social media and mass connectivity, one bad review could hurt a park.
“If someone goes to the park and has a bad experience, they can go to social media,” said MDWFP public affairs director Warren Strain. “That can further damage the image of the park.”
Here is a look at the needs of a few area state parks:
Thanks to a five-year partnership with Toyota Mississippi, Tombigbee State Park outside of Tupelo has enjoyed a surge in popularity and publicity.
Toyota named it its signature park and donated roofs for the lodge, bathhouse and dining hall. Along with volunteer work days, the company helped install split rail fences and stain them. Toyota employees also helped replace roofs on smaller picnic structures.
“After a Toyota work day is shown on television and in the paper, we’ll have folks come to the park and say, ‘I’ve been living here 40 years and never knew this place was here,’” said park manager Jeff Rosamond. “We are a hidden gem.
“Other folks love us. We had a couple fall in love with Cabin #3. They measured everything and made detailed drawings. Now there is an exact copy of it in Missouri.”
The park features a fishing lake, two disc golf courses and trails. But the bulk of the paying customers plan on spending the night in the quiet park hidden between Plantersville and Mooreville.
“Cabins and campgrounds are 80 percent of our revenues,” Rosamond said.
The park has eight cabins. One is a cottage. Another cabin was recently renovated to include a modern kitchen, complete with granite countertops. But it is the other six that draw the most attention and are in need of the most work.
That half-dozen were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Because they are on a national historic register, any work has to follow historical styles and federal guidelines – which adds to the costs.
“Maintaining them is tough,” Rosamond said. “They fall under the historic archives, so it can be a challenge. When you do any repairs or updates, it has to be the same stuff that came off. The problem is we don’t do things now the way they did back then.
“If we need to replace the (clapboard) siding, we have to not only find cypress but it has to be cut one-inch thick at a sawmill with a circular saw.”
Most sawmills switched to band saws years ago. Since the cabin doors are handmade, repairs are tricky and custom jobs. The windows are wood, with cedar muntins separating the glass panes.
Even though a modern double-pane window would look similar and provide more insulation, they are not allowed.
“Just to replace one window, you are looking at around $800,” Rosamond said.
Toyota adopted one of the cabins and donated $15,000, which barely scratched the surface of the repairs needed for Cabin #5.
“There is just not enough funding to go around,” Rosamond said. “We fix what needs to be fixed as we can. It’s a smaller park, so you can stay on top of things in the off-season. We get as much maintenance done as possible when things are slower.”
Many of the cabin roofs need repairing or replacing. A park employee checks the cabins on a regular basis to make sure there are not any problems. While the exteriors might look a little rough, the routine checks and maintenance have resulted in limited problems on the interior of the structures.
Where feasible and permitted, Rosamond uses modern materials. For the picnic areas and smaller pavilions, they went with metal roofs that require less upkeep and have much longer lifespans than asphalt shingles.
“We face the same challenges as other parks. There are some concerns – the budget is the biggest. (State budget reductions) have cut our personnel back to a skeleton crew. Everything is revenue, revenue, revenue.
“Our numbers are up, but we are in the fifth year of a partnership with Toyota, that has been a big help.”
Trace State Park manager Josh Massey knows all about infrastructure problems. The water level of the 565-acre lake was lowered in 2016 because of concerns with the levee. Additional landslides on the levee forced the main lake to be completely drained in 2017.
“We’ve got the biggest lake in the area for skiing, jet skiing and fishing,” Massey said. “The lake is the heart of the park and right now, the heart is not beating.
“On a daily basis, we have folks asking where the lake is and when will it be back to normal.”
Officials hope the repairs can be completed this summer to start the lengthy process of reopening the lake.
“That is one of our more profitable lakes, so we are anxious to get it back. It’s a great fishing lake,” Head said. “That is an ongoing project. We were not able to complete the project before the rainy season started. We have a contract and are just waiting for dry weather so they can get back out there. It should be finished by this summer.”
The lack of fishing and skiing has taken its toll of the park’s bottom line. Revenue has been slashed by about two-thirds. The number of employees has taken a similar hit in recent years.
In the meantime, visitors can still fish in the park’s smaller 12.9-acre lake. The park has eight cabins and campsites that keeps folks coming while the lake is empty. In addition to camping, there is a disc golf course and plenty of trails. There are 35 miles of horse and motorcycle trails and another 14 miles of hiking trails.
Currently, a staff of three is tasked with keeping the park open year-round.
“As a manager, you wear many hats and do anything and everything,” Massey said. “I fix the water, sewer, some electrical and run the office. (Even without the lake), there is still as much to do.”
Even with its problems, the park still has loyal visitors.
“We have a family from Canada that goes to Texas every year,” Massey said. “They make it a point to stop here because they love the park.”
In a relatively flat state, Tishomingo State Park is a welcome change of pace. With massive rock formations and boulders that beckon rock climbers, an iconic suspension bridge and a Native American presence dating back 9,000 years, it is a gem.
The park’s lodge and the six cabins date back to the 1930s and the CCC, and any work on historic structures can quickly blow a budget. That’s why park officials were thrilled to get additional funding from the state legislature this year.
“The priorities are repairs and improvements to the sewer treatment plant,” Strain said. “The rest will go toward cabin roofs. We have already replaced several roofs, so we will try to finish the rest of them.
“Anything left over will be used for regular maintenance of the cabins.”