Legislator proposes State Parks’ transfer

Staff Writer
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

OKLAHOMA CITY – An eastern Oklahoma legislator wants management of all state parks to be transferred from the Department of Tourism/Recreation to the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

State Rep. James Lockhart (D-Heavener) proposes the realignment in two companion pieces of legislation: House Bill 2737 and House Joint Resolution 1050.

“I don’t think our state parks receive the funding and the attention they deserve,” Lockhart said. “Most of our state parks are in rural areas, and the Wildlife Department operates in rural areas, so operation of the parks should fit hand-in-glove with the Wildlife Department’s other duties.”

HB 2737 is the enabling legislation that would transfer authority over the 34 state parks from the state Tourism and Recreation Commission to the state Wildlife Conservation Commission, effective Jan. 1, 2017. The Division of State Parks in the Department of Tourism and Recreation would be abolished.

Oklahoma’s state parks include nearby Osage Hills, as well as Tenkiller, Grand Lake, Alabaster Caverns, Great Salt Plains, Black Mesa, Roman Nose, Lake Texoma, Beavers Bend, Robbers Cave, Red Rock Canyon, and more than a dozen others.

Employees of the Parks Division – who currently number 328 full-time plus a little over 300 part-time, seasonal workers during the summer months – would be reassigned to the Wildlife Department.

HB 2737 stipulates that “to the extent possible” the Wildlife Department would ensure that Parks Division employees would “retain pay and benefits … including longevity, dependent insurance benefits, seniority, rights and other privileges or benefits.”

Funds to support the state parks – which encompass approximately 55,000 acres and include cabins, campsites, golf courses and other amenities – would be generated from a one-quarter of a penny state sales tax proposed in HJR 1050. The suggested tax increase (which would raise Oklahoma’s state sales tax, currently 4.5%, or 4 1/2 cents per dollar, to 4.75%) would be submitted to voters statewide for their approval or rejection.

Based on current sales-tax receipts, Lockhart’s proposed one-quarter-cent tax would produce an estimated $150 million per year, fiscal analysts have calculated. HJR 1050 mandates that the Department of Wildlife Conservation would have to earmark an unspecified portion of those funds “to acquire additional lands for public hunting, fishing and other recreational activity.”

The Department of Wildlife Conservation manages approximately 1.5 million acres throughout Oklahoma, according to Nels Rodefeld, the agency’s information/education chief. The department owns about 20% of that acreage and leases several thousand acres, but most of the land is licensed from agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rodefeld said.

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation already has an account dedicated to land acquisition and maintenance, records reflect: $5 of every $25 hunting or fishing license, and $25 of every lifetime hunting or fishing license. Of that $5, fifty cents is earmarked for maintenance of hunting/fishing lands and the other $4.50 is devoted to purchasing or leasing land, Rodefeld said.

HJR 1050 also decrees that the Wildlife Department could charge no more than $50 per year for a combination hunting/fishing license.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation is completely self-financed from license fees it charges; it receives no funding from the Legislature. The Department of Tourism and Recreation was appropriated $20.65 million in each of the last two fiscal years, ledgers indicate. With the Legislature facing a budget deficit tentatively estimated at $1 billion,

“It’s a virtual certainty that the Tourism and Recreation Department’s appropriation will be cut this year,” Lockhart predicted.