Labor Day Weekend offers an opportunity to enjoy a last blast of summer.
If history is a guide, thousands of Missourians will take advantage of the three-day weekend by heading outdoors to hike, bike, fish, swim and float.
Many will travel to one of Missouri’s 90-plus state parks to enjoy these recreational activities.
Missourians love their state parks. That’s not hyperbole. In November, voters approved extending a special state sales tax to fund parks and conservation by an 80 percent margin. Few, if any, taxes in Missouri enjoy that kind of support.
That comes as no surprise. Our state’s park system is recognized as one of the premier park systems in the nation. It includes the Katy Trail, the longest developed rail-to-trail in the nation, which attracts biking enthusiasts from around the world. Even better, our parks are free and open to everyone.
In just the past few years, our state has won designations as the “Best Trails State” and “Best Camping State,” from national organizations.
It’s easy to see why. The Show-Me State’s greatest asset is its abundant natural resources, which include mighty rivers, spring-fed streams, lush forests and the rugged Ozark Mountains.
Our parks and trails offer a way for everyone, even those with limited financial means, to experience this natural beauty.
Former Gov. Jay Nixon understood this better than anyone. He deserves much credit for the resurgence of our state park and trail system. Nixon, a lifelong outdoorsman, made parks a priority of his administration. He directed millions of dollars to expanding and improving our park and trail systems, and under his watch, thousands of acres of new parklands and trails were created.
He was a champion, cheerleader and untiring promoter for Missouri’s outdoor economy. It came natural to him. He grew up hunting and fly fishing with his dad in the Ozarks so he had a real appreciation for the state’s natural assets and their potential to better local economies.
There is no better example of that than Echo Bluff State Park, located along the Current River. It serves as an example of what is possible when you harness state resources to promote our state’s natural resources.
The park, which opened last year, is Nixon’s exclamation point — the crown jewel of all Missouri parks and one of the best facilities of its kind anywhere in the nation. It is truly spectacular and a must-visit for any fan of the outdoors.
It’s clear Missouri’s outdoor economy has momentum. That’s why it’s disappointing to learn that the current administration has hit the brakes on further park development.
According to reports, the state may not develop four new state parks acquired at the end of Nixon’s term and may decline a donation of a 144-mile stretch of rail line that could connect to the Katy Trail. Some critics have even suggested selling the recently acquired parks.
The official line is the state doesn’t have the money to develop the new projects and needs to focus instead on deferred maintenance at existing state parks, which is estimated at nearly $200 million.
But others blame petty politics and egos for the hesitation in prioritizing the parks. Some lawmakers are irked that Nixon didn’t keep them in the loop on the acquisition of the four new parks. They also contend money from settlements with lead mining companies shouldn’t have been used for some of the projects. Others resent that the former Democratic governor received national acclaim for his work in the state park realm.
Regardless, it would be a mistake not to seize this opportunity. Gov. Greitens should co-opt Nixon’s parks agenda and build on it.
Why? One reason that should appeal to Greitens and Republicans in the Legislature is that it makes sound economical sense. Investing in parks pays real economic dividends.
Last year, 20 million people visited Missouri’s state parks. The overall economic impact of those visitors surpassed $1 billion in annual sales. For every dollar spent to operate the park system, Missouri’s economy saw a $26 return on investment.
Without question, it will take serious money to develop the parks projects. But like all of our state parks, the work can be accomplished in phases over years. It doesn’t have to be done immediately.