TUPELO • Mississippi’s state parks are neither managed nor advertised effectively, according to a legislative oversight committee.
Haphazard maintenance, declining visitation, and not enough money are among the failings identified by a report released this week from the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Review.
These findings follow a 2020 legislative session in which state leaders largely agreed that improvements are needed to the Magnolia State’s network of 25 state parks, which are managed by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
Lawmakers floated multiple and competing proposals to bolster the state’s park systems. No plan, however, could garner favor with both chambers. The Senate initially backed a plan to privatize the management of some parks while forcing local governments to take over other parks. The House brought up various plans to divert additional funding for parks.
The PEER findings underscore the need for some kind of action to address a park system that has seen a steady decline in visitors, dropping from 4 million in 2001 to just over 1 million in 2019.
“Internal challenges facing the state park system include a lack of prioritization in maintenance planning, a lack of strategic marketing, and a lack of accountability for cash payments made at park entrances,” the PEER committee found.
Maintenance needs loomed large during legislative discussion this year on parks.
MDWFP claims it has a $147 million maintenance backlog. When the Daily Journal asked for more information about this figure, the agency could never account for where that estimate came from.
Some lawmakers also told the Daily Journal they have been unable to obtain a full accounting of how that number was derived.
The PEER committee ultimately suggested that the state parks system should use data related to how frequently parks are used in order to prioritize maintenance projects.
Right now, MDWFP “lacks a strategy to prioritize and accomplish the projects, despite readily available data on state park occupancy and rental rates.”
Similarly, PEER found that there is no strategic marketing plan that guides efforts to attract new visitors.
Financially, the state parks system does not generate enough revenue to sustain its operations. A few parks generate enough revenue to cover their expenses, but the system as a whole is reliant on an annual appropriation by the Legislature from the general fund.
Mississippi fares particularly poorly when compared to neighboring states, some of which have dedicated revenue streams for parks.
“Neighboring state park systems employ more staff, operate more parks and have more expenditures and self-generated revenues than Mississippi’s state park system," according to the PEER findings.
PEER suggested that the Legislature consider changing the governance of the park system. Options include the following: moving parks to a new state agency that would include tourism; moving parks to the tourism division of the Mississippi Development Authority; or creating a standalone agency to manage parks.