OKLAHOMA CITY — Starting next spring, state officials plan to start charging admission fees at some of Oklahoma’s most popular state parks.
Jerry Winchester, executive director of Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, said 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.
Lake Murray, south of Ardmore, Oklahoma, is one of the parks that will soon have admission fees, he said. Others include Beavers Bend, Lake Thunderbird, Sequoyah, Lake Eufaula and Tenkiller. Officials may charge Oklahoma residents discounted rates, and they may offer annual passes.
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. “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.
The new fees also will hopefully deter people from coming into the parks and causing trouble, he said.
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.
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 Tuesday expressed support for the plan.
“For many years, we’ve allowed our infrastructure to deteriorate,” said state Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah.
While he called entrance fees a “novel idea” for Oklahoma, Thompson said he’s not opposed to a reasonable rate.
“One thing I’m very interested in is making sure that our hardworking citizens have access to parks,” he said. “As a rural legislator, parks offer a quality of life that I do not want to see either priced away from citizens that cannot afford to go or just made inaccessible to them in any way.”
State Rep. Josh West, R-Grove, said tourism is big business in his legislative district near Grand Lake. He serves as chair of the state House tourism committee.
“I think that if we want nice things, sometimes we need to pay for them,” he said. “The state parks kind of went to the wayside. They don’t receive a lot of appropriations as it is. We’re going to have to sink some money into our state parks.”
He said Texans are crossing the border and utilizing the parks on the southern end of the state for free.
Grand Lake, meanwhile, frequently draws fishing and tourism from outside of Oklahoma, he said.
“What they’re doing (with the fees), we’re not going to get rich off it as a state, but we’ve got to be able to maintain what we have,” he said.
State Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, who serves as vice chair of the committee, said the tourism agency is severely underfunded.
By charging a fee, the state can enhance amenities and experiences for visitors.
“We could do so much more if we had the dollars to reinvest in our state parks,” he said. “This is one of the ways we can do that that’s reasonable and similar to other states.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.