Bioblitz Oklahoma

A group talks about identification of different trees on a botany walk during BioBlitz! Oklahoma 2019 at Sequoyah State Park. KELLY BOSTIAN/Tulsa World

Oklahoma’s most popular state parks will begin charging an entrance fee starting next spring.

A lot of the details — including the precise rate structure — are up in the air at this point, but officials say they’re looking at a system that raises $8 million to $10 million a year, which could be used for improving the chronically underfunded park system.

Prices could be higher for the more popular parks; many may have no entrance fee at all.

Officials plan an Oklahoma resident discount and, eventually, an electronic charge system similar to the turnpike system’s PikePass. A one-price, all-season pass is also probable.

Oklahoma state parks are underfunded, which makes them less desirable destinations. The park system needs money, but there are higher priorities for any new tax revenue at the state Capitol.

While parks are a general government service that ought to be funded with general taxation, realistic thinking says a reasonable user fee dedicated to park improvement is justified.

Most other states — and all the states the border Oklahoma with the exception of Arkansas — already charge park entrance fees.

If there is going to be a park user fee, there should be a substantial discount for Oklahomans. Some of the state’s most popular parks are along the state’s southern border, and there’s no reason for our taxpayers to be subsidizing their Texas cousins’ vacations.

We also think a discounted one-price season pass is important. That would benefit consistent park users, who are the system’s most important ambassadors and political supporters. A quick review of other state park systems shows that is the norm nationwide.

It’s important that the money raised be used to improve the parks. The Legislature must not take this as an opportunity to cut park funding, giving the users the same product at a higher cost.

Finally, we think a move to park fees should come with a sunset provision. After five or six years, state tourism officials, and possibly the Legislature, should look at whether the fee system worked the way it was supposed to. Did it raise money? Was that money used appropriately? What was the effect on park usage?

Properly implemented, a park user fee can be a good step for the state park system, but the plan needs details and a plan for assessment.

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