Image: Fishing at twilight
Julie Jacobson  /  AP
Jeffery Serrano of Henderson, Nev., second from left, helps his kids fish at twilight at the edge of Kingman Wash at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Ariz.
By
updated 5/30/2011 11:03:30 AM ET 2011-05-30T15:03:30

Closed parks, fewer services and more volunteer help are some of the ways states are coping with steep budget cuts that could limit vacations and long summer weekends for campers and outdoor lovers seeking recreation closer to home. National Park Service budgets have also been hit, but the changes shouldn't be as noticeable.

While park finances are weak, visitation is strong.

"It seems even $4 a gallon gas isn't hurting but may even be an impetus to get people to think about the close-to-home state park vacation," said Joe Elton, president of the National Association of State Park Directors and director of Virginia's state park system. "I'm expecting Memorial Day weekend is going to be huge for us."

State parks across the country are looking at serious cuts in services, fee increases or even closures as lawmakers look for ways to deal with their budget crises. The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department closed seven state parks. In California, a lack of funding has threatened to force the shutdown of 70 state parks.

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Slideshow: America's national parks (on this page)

Other states have been creative in their efforts to avoid reducing services.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission late last year refused state parks administrator Chas Van Genderen's request to raise fees at some state parks after he said his division was in a "terrible fiscal situation."

"In these tough economic times, people don't stop using their parks," Van Genderen said recently. "We're going to be looking at any number of alternatives throughout the park system."

That means using more volunteers in parks such as Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park near Bozeman and Pictograph Cave State Park near Billings, he said. Or exploring deals in which municipalities or counties take over the management or even ownership of some parks.

Montana starts taking online campground reservations this weekend, making it one of the last states in the nation to implement such a system.

"That was one of our responses to the tight economy," Van Genderen said.

No matter how creative or austere the parks become, it will be difficult for the recreation areas to be completely self-sufficient, and state lawmakers need to recognize their obligation to keep up the nation's wild places, Elton said.

"I don't think it's as appreciated as much as it should be that this is a birthright in America. We've preserved a good chunk of our wilderness and made it enjoyable to all our citizens," he said. "I think the outlook is still dire in some places. (But) there is a growing recognition that we probably ought to not throw the baby out with the bathwater."

The National Park Service received about $11 million in operational cuts this year and nearly $50 million less in its construction budget, said John Garder of the non-governmental National Parks Conservation Association.

Those cuts aren't large, but they come on top of a $600 million annual operations shortfall by the National Park Service and is exacerbated by higher fixed costs such as fuel, he said.

"Just as an American family has to absorb increased costs, that's something the Park Service has to deal with," Garder said.

Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson said park superintendents knew their budgets would be lean this year and they made adjustments early. So visitors shouldn't see any fewer seasonal employees, delayed campground openings or reduced visitor center hours as a result of the cuts, he said.

"Visitor services will be the same this summer as in 2010," Olson said.

Yellowstone National Park spokesman Al Nash said the park will have between 700 and 800 staff this summer, about the same as last year. A $5 million construction project to stabilize the Old Faithful visitors center to protect against a big earthquake is on track to begin next year, he said.

To the north, Glacier National Park's budget this year has been reduced about 2 percent compared to last year, said spokeswoman Ellen Blickhan. But there won't be any obvious changes to visitors, she said.

"We kind of planned for that, so it wasn't a complete shock we had a 2 percent budget decrease," Blickhan said.

Overall, the National Park Service's budget has been cut by about $130 million compared with last year. But budget writers are talking about even deeper cuts in 2012 — as much as 7 percent.

"I would be surprised if a visitor went to any national park this weekend and experienced any substantial reduction to the services they experienced last year," Garder said. "But we're concerned about additional cuts, which would be very challenging for the National Park Service to absorb."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: America's national parks

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  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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