American-Tribune (copy)

Would you be willing to pay $8 to $12 just to drive through Sequoyah State Park for lunch at the lodge?

Would you be happier with a discounted rate from that $8-$12 because you live in Oklahoma? Or, would you prefer to purchase a year-long pass that gets you inside the park for even a better discount?

Those questions need to be ironed out, but one thing is for sure, the director of Oklahoma tourism wants to charge fees to fund State parks. Sequoyah State Park is one of the first that will be charging the entry.

That’s what is happening at the State Capitol and it could affect many who go to the parks beginning in the spring of 2020.

Jerry Winchester, executive director of Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, told the media recently that visitors entering at about 52 of the state’s 117 park entrances will pay an entry fee that’s expected to be $8 to $12 per vehicle.

Beavers Bend, Lake Murray, Lake Thunderbird, Sequoyah, Lake Eufaula and Tenkiller are among the parks that soon will have admission fees, he said. He said the complete list has not been made public as of yet. Officials may charge Oklahoma residents discounted rates, and they may offer annual passes.

It is estimated that Oklahoma’s state parks draw about 9.3 million visitors a year. While Beavers Bend and Lake Murray lure about 3 million of those tourists, even the smallest parks attract tens of thousands of visitors.

Winchester said many of the park visitors are from out of state. They’re using park infrastructure, boat ramps and dumping trash, yet paying nothing.

“It’s a great deal for them,” Winchester said recently. “Not only do they not have to pay to use our state park, they don’t have to pay for anything.”

Only two states that border Oklahoma don’t charge fees, he said. But Arkansas and Missouri pay for their park system through a tax on sporting goods and associated things like boat sales, he said.

“State parks are a quality of life factor for Oklahomans. They provide free recreation and promote tourism. I hope the state can find another alternative to charging entry into the park,” said Kristen Mallett, who is Executive Director of the Wagoner Area Chamber of Commerce. “If they do decide to charge, I hope it is affordable. Maybe they could give Oklahomans a discount or let them in free? I hope they will also give Sequoyah State Park campers, boaters, and lodge guests a pass to enter for free since they are already paying to access the amenities.”

The new fees also will hopefully deter people from coming into the parks and causing trouble, Winchester added.

Last month, tourism officials described difficult decisions looming as lawmakers listened. Oklahoma is grappling with how to manage a vast park system crumbling from decades of neglect.

“We’re trying to figure out the way to raise this money on our own without being an additional burden to the taxpayers of this state,” Winchester said.

Winchester said he doesn’t need legislative approval to institute entrance fees, which are estimated to generate about $8 to $10 million in revenue to pay for upgrades and repairs to park infrastructure.

One of the upgrades could come for the troubled Sequoyah State Park golf course. The course is in need of a new drainage system and cost estimates have been $1 million to fix it.

But as word spreads about the new fees, Winchester said he expects some will be unhappy.

“I can assure you the majority of that feedback will not be positive,” Winchester said.

Still, some lawmakers recently expressed support for the plan.

“For many years, we’ve allowed our infrastructure to deteriorate,” said state Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah.