- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2004

RICHMOND (AP) — The state’s largest park, Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield County, is getting 64 more campsites and six cabins thanks to hugely popular bond issues approved by voters. But there is no one to tend them.

The sprawling park can barely take care of its existing 65 campsites, not to mention numerous historic cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Depression-era jobs program, park manager Ann E. Zahn said.

Some buildings are falling prey to termites and rot. The staff is so thin that for about 30 days a year, no law officer patrols the park’s 7,000-plus acres.

The park’s seven employees work hard “to do what folks expect of us,” Miss Zahn said. But, “I know a lot of folks who have hit the limit. We are starting to say, ‘We can’t do that anymore.’”

Virginia’s state parks and preserves are in a squeeze, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported yesterday. Bond issues approved by voters in 1992 and 2002 provided $214 million for new land and buildings, but tight state budgets brought few new workers to care for them. As a result, many parks are not being adequately tended, state officials say.

“The system is overextended and underfunded,” said Joseph H. Maroon, director of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which runs the parks and preserves.

Mr. Maroon plans to ask the legislature for an unspecified amount of money in the upcoming session.

The Commission on the Future of Virginia’s Environment, a bipartisan General Assembly panel, recognized the problem in a 2002 report and recommended that the parks’ operating money be increased by $20.5 million over two years.

Instead, state general funds for parks have gone up just $700,000 since 1995, to $10.7 million, park officials say. Virginia ranks at the very bottom of states in per-capita spending for parks and the percentage of the state budget allocated to parks.

The panel also endorsed park officials’ request for 112 more employees. But the number of park workers has risen by 20 since 1995, to 194.

Sen. William T. Bolling, Hanover Republican and chairman of the panel that studied the parks, said that with the economy growing and the state running a budget surplus, “one would hope there would be an opportunity to go back and look at” helping the parks.

In 1992, Virginians voted to issue $95 million in bonds for four new parks and numerous campsites, cabins and other improvements. They voted in 2002 for $119 million in bonds for three parks, campsites and other amenities.

But without more operating money, Mr. Maroon told the Times-Dispatch, “we are not sure how we are going to open some of those facilities.”

For example, the latest bond plans call for new parks in the central Shenandoah Valley, on the Middle Peninsula and along a river in Shenandoah County. Mr. Maroon said the state will acquire the land, but “we won’t have the operating funds or staff to open the new state parks.”

Virginia has 34 parks, including four products of the 1992 bond issue — Wilderness Road in Lee County, Andy Guest in Warren County, James River in Buckingham County and Belle Isle in Lancaster County. Park attendance has grown from 3.9 million visitors in 1992 to more than 7 million in the past two years.

Besides parks, the Department of Conservation and Recreation oversees 43 nature preserves, which protect wild lands and rare species. In just the past two years, the state has added 10 preserves, totaling 17,810 acres. Twelve more probably will be added in the next two years, said Tom Smith, director of the state’s Natural Heritage Program, which runs the preserves.

Because of budget cuts over the past two years, however, the number of people who tend the preserves has dropped from 10 to seven. One man tends preserves from Lee County in far southwest Virginia to Rockingham County in the Shenandoah Valley.

The preserves represent some of Virginia’s finest, rarest lands, including spectacular mountainsides, pristine caves and undeveloped Chesapeake Bay beaches. The lands need to be protected from poachers, trash dumpers and invasive weeds, Mr. Smith said.

“We are no longer keeping up” in properly protecting them, Mr. Smith said.

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