For a state with so many outdoor enthusiasts who love to hunt, fish, camp, hike and enjoy the natural beauty of the Magnolia State, Mississippi is severely lacking when it comes to long-term planning for our state parks and outdoors attractions.
This past legislative session highlighted an almost unbelievable lack of anything resembling a cohesive plan for our wildlife and parks system. Based on the near complete disconnect between major bills filed dealing with wildlife and parks, one would think Mississippi doesn’t have much experience with the outdoors.
There was as a push to create the Mississippi Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund, which would go toward fixing and improving our state parks and allow for public-private partnerships involving wildlife and outdoors projects. The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks put a price tag of $147 million on critical and necessary projects; however, when the Daily Journal asked for a list of those projects and how much each cost, they could only come up with $14 million worth of items.
Rep. Bill Kinkade, R-Byhalia, said the department provided him its full maintenance backlog, but that document totaled just over $100 million in repairs – not $147 million. He declined to provide it to the Daily Journal.
We have no doubt that our state parks are in desperate need of maintenance, repairs and upgrades. We also know how valuable they are to our state as an economic driver. But how can anyone expect for the Legislature to adopt a funding plan when even a close accounting cannot be provided?
Lawmakers wanted to fix state parks, but couldn’t agree on a strategy
There was also a lot of debate over how to proceed with the trust fund. Should it depend on annual legislative funding – an idea that inspires zero confidence given how lawmakers have cut wildlife funding by more than 50% over the past two decades and fail to fully fund other initiatives, like the state education formula – or should the trust fund use a sales tax diversion from sporting goods stores?
Then there was the question of whether public funds should go toward private endeavors. The Senate said absolutely not, ignoring other public-private endeavors they support. But their concern is not completely overblown. Any private partnerships should be limited to those with public benefit. We certainly would hate to see public money going to spruce up someone’s hunting lodge.
Perhaps better planning and communication could have saved the trust fund idea this year through compromise.
But planning has to go beyond the idea of a trust fund. What is the overall, long-term vision for state parks and outdoors resources? How is it being promoted? And how are wildlife leaders and advocates educating lawmakers and others?
Clearly lawmakers are emboldened to do as they see fit. Bills were introduced to privatize state parks – an awful idea. And lawmakers late in the session even spent $3.1 million to buy additional land in the Delta that reportedly will be used for hunting, fishing and other outdoors activities. But only Senate leaders seemed to know exactly where that request came from.
Lawmakers and wildlife officials need to get together and build out a true comprehensive plan. Our state parks and outdoors resources are far too valuable for them to continue to be underfunded and ignored. We are missing out on much-needed tourism revenue, and the main reason seems to be a simple lack of a cohesive strategy.