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Funding the future

By Jason Jenkins for Citizens Committee for Soil, Water and State Parks

When Brandon Butler moved to the Show-Me State, it didn’t take the avid outdoorsman long to discover new places for his family to hike, camp and fish, including Missouri’s state parks. But the Indiana native was shocked by what he found when he first pulled up to a state park.

“There was no one waiting there to charge me an entrance fee,” said Butler, executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri and member of the Citizens Committee for Soil, Water and State Parks. “Back home in Indiana, they charge $7 per carload. When we lived out in Colorado, they charged up to $9 per car just to get in. I couldn’t believe that Missouri’s parks were free.”

Butler soon learned that for more than 30 years, the citizens of Missouri have overwhelmingly supported a tax that allows anyone to visit any state park or historic site absolutely free of charge. This one-tenth-cent sales tax creates an efficient and effective revenue stream for both soil and water conservation efforts and operation of the state park system. Today, it annually generates about $90 million, which is equally distributed to the Soil and Water Tax Fund and the State Park Sales Tax Fund.

The Show-Me State was the first in the nation to pass such a tax, and its need was clear. In the early 1980s, Missouri’s state parks and historic sites were quickly losing ground, lacking funds for even basic maintenance. Improvements to facilities — much less expansions — were but a pipe dream. Some parks even had to be closed for a time.

The situation for soil and water conservation was just as dire. Missouri’s soil-erosion rate was the second highest in the nation, clogging waterways with choking sediment that impacted water quality for everyone living downstream. The very resource on which agriculture, the state’s largest industry, depended was literally washing away.

Voters chose to begin solving these problems in 1984 when they passed the one-tenth-cent sales tax for an initial five-year period. Since then, it has been renewed three times — in 1988, 1996 and most recently in 2006.

Today, the successes that can be attributed to the Parks, Soils and Water Tax are clearly evident statewide. State parks and historic sites are now an integral component of Missouri’s tourism industry and a favorite destination for “staycations.”

Surveys indicate that nearly three-quarters of Missourians visit a state park at least once a year. In 2015, more than 19.2 million people visited state parks and historic sites generating an economic impact of more than $1.02 billion and supporting more than 14,500 jobs. The parks consistently earn a 97 percent approval rating from visitors.

The system has grown to include 88 state parks and historic sites. Since the tax was renewed in 2006, additions have included the Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site, Current River State Park, Don Robinson State Park, Rock Island Trail State Park and, mostly recently, Echo Bluff State Park, which opened to the public on July 30.

Not only does the park system offer more destinations, but the amenities and services that visitors find have vastly improved as well. Camping nights at state parks are on the increase, no doubt in part to a growing number of options — from primitive camping and sites with full hook-ups to camper-cabins and yurts. There are more miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding, and interpretive programs about Missouri’s natural and cultural resources fill the calendars at these destinations.

Likewise, the gains made in soil and water conservation have made Missouri a national model. Since 1984, it’s estimated that programs supported by sales tax dollars have helped Missouri landowners keep more than 177 million tons of soil out of the state’s lakes, rivers and streams.

“The volume of soil that we have saved since 1984 is just phenomenal,” said Gary Vandiver, a farmer from Richmond and chairman of the Missouri Soil & Water Districts Commission. “We’re not only protecting the soil and the cropland, we’re protecting the streams and the rivers from continued degradation that’s seen in a lot of other states that don’t have a tax like ours.”

Erosion rates have been cut in half since the initial passage of the sales tax, and since it was renewed in 2006, more than 61,000 conservation practices have been implemented through $348 million in cost-share grant projects.

“The sales tax provides critical funding for core functions that the department has responsibility for,” said Sara Parker Pauley, director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “It says a lot about Missouri citizenry when they know how important our natural resources and our state park system is that they would vote numerous times to approve a parks, soils and water sales tax designed to improve our resources throughout the state.”

While much progress has been made during the past 30 years, there is still much to be done and momentum to maintain. In November, Missouri voters will consider a 10-year renewal of the Parks, Soil and Water Sales Tax. Dozens of agricultural, conservation and environmental organizations support renewal of the tax, including Missouri Farm Bureau, the Missouri State Parks Foundation, the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Federation of Missouri.

“I’ve lived other places, and what Missouri has is a good thing,” Butler said. “I say, let’s keep a good thing going.”