People pedal by as other people sit on a bench at Roosevelt State Park, Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Morton, Miss. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The state Senate on Friday approved a year-long study of the efficacy of privatizing some state parks and giving others to local governments. But even the study drew fierce criticism from some lawmakers who say the state’s neglected parks should be spruced up, not given away or leased.

“It’s heartbreaking to hear serious discussion of, instead of doing the sensible thing, talking about privatization,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory. “… Anyone who thinks (the parks study) isn’t an attempt to privatize state parks is mistaken. Look at where it’s coming from … We give billions and billions and billions of dollars away to the well connected, and billions of dollars to out-of-state corporations, but when was the last time we focused on the core functions of government? The pattern plays out — we neglect something, then let a bunch of big boys come in and take over and make a bunch of money.

“These public lands belong to all of us,” Bryan continued.

Senate Bill 2486 was authored by Senate Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Chairman Neil Whaley, R-Potts Camp, and backed by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann. The measure originally would have left only four of the state’s 25 parks under Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks management. Others would be leased to private entities, turned over to counties or cities or converted to wildlife conservation areas.

But after the bill sparked criticism and House leaders indicated it wouldn’t fly in their chamber, the measure was changed to create a study committee that would report back to lawmakers before next year’s session. The Senate passed the measure on Friday, but with a dozen senators voting against it.

Hosemann has said many parks could benefit from “an infusion of knowledge and capital” from privatization. Others during Friday’s debate agreed.

Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, told her colleagues that the Little Black Creek Park near her home had been run by the Pat Harrison Waterway District and over years fell into disrepair. She said the park was taken over by private management and “now you can’t even get a site there it’s so nice.”

“I’ve seen (privatization) save that park,” Hill said. “We already have a group that runs the golf courses at our state parks, and they’re in better shape now … We are not utilizing our resources like other states around us … And if you haven’t noticed, during the pandemic, RVs are the hottest thing since sliced bread.”

Mississippi’s state parks have suffered from years of neglected maintenance and budget cuts to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks. The price tag to bring the state’s 25 parks (three of which are run by local governments) up to snuff is an estimated $147 million. Plus, millions more a year would be needed to keep them up — prompting discussion of privatization and a search for other options.

But privatization of parks has drawn fierce debate nationwide and in Mississippi. Opponents fear private developers would “cherry pick” the best state parks that could turn profits leaving others neglected, or that privatization would turn parks into expensive resorts and limit public access.

Meanwhile, House leaders are moving legislation to create a permanent stream of money to repair and improve the state’s long-neglected parks. House Bill 1231, authored by Rep. C. Scott Bounds, R-Philadelphia, would divert about $1 million a year in sales taxes collected at sporting goods stores to a new “Mississippi Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund.”

House Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Chairman Bill Kinkade said providing dedicated funding to state parks — as other states do — is the best long-range solution and giving parks away is “short sighted.”

Another House measure that would have diverted about $3.5 million a year from the state’s lottery proceeds died in House committee this week.

Kinkade said the House likely will move to approve some borrowing this year for park improvements.

Other states cash in on state park tourism, with the COVID-19 pandemic driving demand for RV-ing, camping and outdoor vacationing and recreation.

Mississippi receives about 1 million visitors to its parks each year. Arkansas state parks attract nearly 8.5 million visitors annually and serve as the state’s largest tourism draw, generating more than $1 billion a year for that state’s economy. Alabama sees nearly 5 million visitors to its parks annually, with an economic impact of about $375 million.

In Arkansas, parks are funded through a dedicated “conservation tax.” In Alabama, parks are 90% self-funded through fees and rentals. Mississippi parks lack an adequate dedicated funding source.

Kinkade said Georgia has a trust fund for parks similar to the one being proposed here.

Mississippi state parks spending has been cut by nearly 60% since 2000, and staffing by 70%. The Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks lacks manpower and money for even routine maintenance. The initial legislative budget recommendation for the coming year would cut the department another $900,000, or by about 15%.

Most of the state’s 600 structures in its parks are in need of some repair — from major to minor, MDWFP has reported.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.