KAISER, Mo. — At state parks across the nation, this is the toll of the deepening budget crisis and years of financial neglect: crumbling roads, faltering roofs, deteriorating restrooms.
Electrical and sewer systems are beginning to give out, too, as are scores of park buildings, some of them built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. In a few places, aging bridges have been detoured and tunnels blocked off because of falling debris.
The tough economy has made money scarcer for administrators at some of the country’s most treasured public spaces who have been forced to postpone maintenance and construction projects, creating a huge backlog of unfinished work that would cost billions of dollars to complete.
Park managers say they try to funnel money to the most urgent needs. Others have received help from private groups or volunteers to tackle work they cannot afford to finish on their own.
“We do what we can,” said Denny Bopp, a supervisor for the Missouri district that includes the Lake of the Ozarks State Park, more than 150 miles southwest of St. Louis. The park’s centerpiece is a huge man-made reservoir that attracted more than a million fishermen, campers, boaters and vacationers in 2010.
Many states had backlogs long before the economy started to decline. But the lack of revenue has allowed more sites to decay, and no one can say how long the work will have to wait. At the Lake of the Ozarks, the list of needed repairs includes a historic home with a severely sagging roof and holes in the porch, and a restroom facility partially covered in moss.
The Associated Press sought information from park administrators across the nation and consulted researchers and published reports. An AP analysis of the data showed that the backlog of projects has ballooned to more than $7 billion and continues to grow.
Park officials say federal stimulus efforts have offered little help for the 6,500-plus state parks, recreation areas and historic sites in the U.S. And they contend a federal conservation fund to support recreation areas has skewed toward federal facilities.
Site managers and park advocates worry that putting off maintenance work too long risks making repair projects more expensive, just as a house in need of new shingles will eventually require an entire roof if the first signs of trouble are ignored.
Robin Dropkin, executive director of the advocacy group Parks & Trails New York, said recreation areas can only be allowed to decay so far before visitors stop coming or facilities must be closed for health and safety reasons.
“Who wants to go into a restroom that is falling apart?” Dropkin said. “Who wants to drink water that may be questionable?”
More than a dozen states estimate that their backlogs are at least $100 million. Massachusetts and New York’s are at least $1 billion. Hawaii officials called park conditions “deplorable” in a December report asking for $50 million per year for five years to tackle a $240 million backlog that covers parks, trails and harbors.
In Missouri, the list of repairs surpasses $200 million. Michigan initially reported a backlog of more than $300 million, although that may improve a little. Renovations could get under way in 2011 at an historic beach house at Ludington State Park, which has been waiting at least five years to begin the work.
“Everyone seems to have sort of similar issues: Nobody has a lot of money, and everyone has a lot of projects to do,” said Will Harris, director of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.
Earlier this year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared state parks and historic sites to be among the nation’s most endangered historic places. The group cited construction backlogs, park closures and other budget cuts.
Another risk is that if parks attract fewer visitors, they also bring in less money for the state and for nearby communities. The National Association of State Parks Directors estimates that the parks generate $20 billion in economic activity annually.
Ken Caplinger, director of West Virginia’s parks, said park supervisors are doing their best to avoid cutting the activities and services that are most important to visitors.
“With ingenuity and a lot of elbow grease and hard, above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty work, you can disguise for a long time a significant lack of funding,” he said. “But eventually, you have to pay the piper. Eventually it does catch up to you.”
Some visitors have started to notice.
Sean George, a camper and hiker who frequently visits Missouri’s parks, said the bathrooms and other facilities can be used, but they clearly need work. Many of the sites, looked like they “could use a little TLC,” said George, 38, of Columbia, Mo.
For the limited money that is available, repair projects must compete against new developments. And the pizazz of opening a new park is often more exciting than fixing an underground pipe.
“It’s always more fun, more interesting and more sexy to build something new than to repair something old,” said Courtland Nelson, director of parks and trails for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “So you have situations where a new state trail, a new water feature or a new state park gets added, and some of the dollars that go into that new thing would have gone into repairing the old thing.”
A few states have managed to keep up with important projects.
North Dakota, which escaped the worst of the recession, spent about $900,000 upgrading old but useable electrical and water systems at two parks. Officials expect to put even more money into park projects because revenue from visitors is exceeding the cost of running the facilities.
“In a budget crunch, we would get told, ‘You have to live with that,'” said Jesse Hanson, who manages the planning and natural resource division for North Dakota Department of Parks and Recreation. “But we have been able to convince legislators this is a good time to get that up to contemporary needs.”
Some parks have gotten help from the public to keep up.
In Ohio, private groups have raised money, and volunteers have helped maintain bike, hiking and horse trails.
Last summer, Missouri used federal work-force investment money to hire more than 1,000 young adults to work in the parks. Designed primarily to get young people outdoors, the program also helped clean up trails, repair roofs and paint buildings.
But plenty of work remains to be done.
“Somewhere along the line, we got behind, and it just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Missouri Parks Director Bill Bryan said. “And we have to make a dent in it now.”