Need a mission in life? Then "A Penny for Parks" wants you.
* If you love fishing, hiking or just sitting on a boulder by singing waters.
* If you're proud to live in the greenest state in the land of the free.
* More to the point, if you take exception to excesses of road-builders who apparently would pave the Garden of Eden given the chance.
* If you're sick of the contempt shown our state's park rangers and naturalists--highly trained professionals so in love with nature they're willing to live on ditch-diggers' wages. Many have been told to leave their homes and communities by year's end, no matter their personal circumstances, no matter that we're in the middle of a recession.
* If you're tired of politicians turning our mountains and rivers into sacrificial lambs in the state's budget debate.
* If you're a teacher or otherwise in a position of influence.
* Or if you're simply good with a telephone, fax machine, email or even an ink pen....
There's a place for you in a growing movement.
It goes by the musical name, "A Penny for Parks," and it's based on simple math.
Last week the State of Tennessee shut down five more parks--in violation of the Department of Conservation's Charter--bringing the total of recently closed parks to 14. These include Norris Dam, beautiful Burgess Falls and dramatic Frozen Head state parks. According to Gov. Don Sundquist's office, the devastation will save taxpayers $3 million.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee Department of Transportation basks in a $1.4 billion annual budget--nearly 500 times (!) the $3 million required to keep these parks open. It is too much to spend sanely. Made drunk on unchecked wealth, road builders are pushing four-lane highways where no one except a few profiteers even wants them. Think Townsend, formerly "the quiet side of the Smokies."
Much of the money for such unwanted roads comes from gasoline taxes, now 21.4 cents on the gallon.
By diverting one penny of gas tax money from building roads to maintaining parks, the state could save somewhere between $15 million and $33 million annually, depending on who's doing the math, and keep every park in Tennessee open "in perpetuity," as it pledged to do when it opened them.
A Penny for Parks has been endorsed by more than 25 conservation groups in Tennessee, and it's been embraced by Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe because it makes sense. OK, Ashe might have other motives as well, but his support is in keeping with his lifelong interest in the outdoors. We'll take it.
There are two simple reasons the movement has been rejected by Sundquist and some in the state legislature.
One is the powerful road-building lobby, which few politicians are brave enough to buck. The second is more subtle. Sundquist and others pushing for a state income tax apparently have decided to use state parks as sacrificial lambs in my opinion.
By closing parks in dramatic wave after wave, they intend to demonstrate just how serious the budget crisis is. But there's a big lie lurking at the heart of their campaign and it needs to be faced squarely, especially by those of us in the media.
Our parks are not victims of hard times. Our parks are victims of politics and misplaced priorities.
If the truth be known, state parks do more than most government entities to pay their own way. Burgess Falls alone attracts more than 400,000 visitors per year when the state allows the gates to remain open. Altogether state parks draw more visitors every year than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and we know what a goldmine the Smokies represent.
Even more than the Smokies, our state parks are assets, not liabilities, and the government should do two things pronto to live up to its solemn pledge to keep them open "in perpetuity."
* One, it should initiate a process that would take politics out of parks by turning their administration over to professional managers rather than political appointees.
* Two, the state should remove the parks from the front lines of the state income tax debate by embracing "A Penny for Parks."
Those of us who care about the outdoors should insist that our elected officials acknowledge the logic of this move. The simple math of it.
If you want to make a difference, contact Will Callaway, executive director for the respected Tennessee Environmental Council and co-chair of Tennesseans for State Parks at 615-248-6500 and at firstname.lastname@example.org.