Brian Knox prepares to launch a boat onto Lake Tangipahoa at Percy Quinn State Park outside of McComb, Miss., on Monday, April 20, 2020, the first day state lakes in Mississippi reopened to fishing after weeks of being closed out of concerns of the coronavirus pandemic. (Matt Williamson/Enterprise-Journal via AP)

The state’s legislative watchdog agency has released a report on Mississippi’s troubled, dilapidated state park system after lawmakers this year debated but failed to reach agreement on funding and fixes.

The Joint Legislative Committee on Performance, Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) found Mississippi’s park system pales to those of surrounding states that capitalize on them to draw tourists and generate income. PEER found that only five of Mississippi’s 25 state parks turn a profit. The system on whole is losing money when about $4 million a year in state general fund spending is backed out, the state lacks any strategic marketing of them and parks are in need of major renovations with no real plan to fund or carry out the maintenance.

PEER found that surrounding states have dedicated sources of revenue for parks, which Mississippi lacks, and that these states spend at least double what Mississippi does on state parks, with Tennessee spending seven times more. As a result, Mississippi parks generate only a fraction of the revenue and tourism of surrounding states.

The PEER report recommended lawmakers consider removing the park system from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, and either creating a new agency to oversee tourism, state parks and history; placing parks under the Mississippi Development Authority’s tourism division; or creating a stand-alone agency to oversee parks.

READ MORE: Lawmakers consider privatizing Mississippi’s dilapidated, underfunded state parks

The report also said lawmakers could consider privatization of state parks services, like states such as Florida have done. This prospect has drawn heated debate in the Legislature, with some lawmakers fearing 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.

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 PEER report found that last year, 87 of 165 positions allotted the system were vacant, and that the state relies heavily on contract and seasonal workers for parks, which “creates a revolving door” of staff.

READ MORE: Move to privatize state parks halted – for now – amid heated debate

Some legislative leaders said improving and increasing funding for parks was a top priority for the Legislature in this year’s session, but proposals to address the issues died amid disagreement between the House and Senate. These included a sales tax diversion from sales at sporting goods stores to provide up to $20 million a year for conservation projects and parks and another measure to privatize some state parks or hand others off to counties and cities.

As Mississippi’s park system has floundered, other states have cashed in on state park tourism, with the COVID-19 pandemic driving demand for RV-ing, camping and outdoor vacationing and recreation.

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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.