Treasure in Peril

Missouri State Parks REALLY NEED That 0.01% Tax

David Gray’s granddaughter Emory Gray and mom Melissa Gray enjoy Roaring River State Park’s crystalline water.

You might be aware that Missouri’s one-tenth of 1-percent sales tax for parks, soils and water is up for a vote again this year.  In an era when “tax” is a four-letter word, this particular tax is an exception.  It is exceptional because, for starters, Missourians voted to establish it in 1984.  You don’t see that every day.

Many of the lodges and other structures at Missouri State Parks were built by workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, providing tangible links to American history.

Even though state parks receive only half of proceeds from the tax, it constitutes more than 75 percent of the operating budget for Missouri’s 53 state parks and 35 historic sites.  Thanks to this stable funding, the Show-Me State has what is generally recognized as one of the best state park systems in the nation.  While it is stable as long as it remains in effect, it requires re-approval by voters every 10 years.  Voters may legitimately ask why they should continue paying for parks when they could reduce their tax burden by voting against it.  There are plenty of convincing economic reasons, such as the fact that for a cost of $6 per person per year the tax generates more than $1 billion in tourism-related sales and directly or indirectly supports more than 14,000 jobs.

But that’s just money and I personally think it’s the least compelling argument for providing funding for our parks.  To illustrate what I think is the most important reason for renewing the parks tax, I can’t think of a better example than that of David Gray’s extended family.  David is a friend of mine.  He is the founder of Ardent Reels, which manufactures high-quality spinning and casting reels in Macon, Missouri.  He recently told me with pride and more than a little fondness about one of his family’s traditions.

Two-year old Emory Gray admires cousin Alex Como’s catch.

Each spring, members of the Gray family come from scattered locations around the nation and converge on Roaring River State Park in Barry County.  Roaring River has been part of Missouri’s park system since 1928 and the focus of the Gray family reunion for 40 years.  The most recent Gray family gathering had attendees spanning four generations and ranging in age from 2 to 95.

That’s a wide age span to please, but Roaring River and Missouri’s other state parks do it with ease.  The park has hiking and handicap-accessible trails, buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, picnic grounds, a swimming pool, nature programs, sites for primitive camping or deluxe motor homes and – of course – world-class trout fishing.

While at Roaring River, Gray regularly runs into out-of-state visitors who express amazement at not having been asked to pay to get in.

“Not having to stop at a gate and pay a per-person or per-vehicle fee seems impossible to them,” he says.  “You pay a nominal fee if you want to camp camping, but in Missouri, you don’t need money to enjoy nature.  I think that’s how it should be.”

“Roaring River is close to my family’s heart,” says Gray.  “We go there to renew our family ties and our spirits.  Honestly, it would break our hearts if we lost the place where we have gathered as a family all these years.  It’s a treasure beyond price.”

Michael Como and his daughter Alex are happy with their nice catch with this Roaring River rainbow trout.

But, it’s a treasure that might very well be lost this year.  If those who value Missouri State Parks don’t go to the polls and show their support, most of the parks – which are owned and operated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources – would have to be shuttered.  With no money to run them, the DNR likely would be forced to sell most of these treasured places.  Johnson Shut-Ins, Elephant Rocks, Bennett Spring, Meramec, Montauk, Lake of the Ozarks, Ha Ha Tonka, Pomme de Terre, Truman Lake, Mark Twain Stockton, Katy Trail state parks and dozens of others that draw a total of 18 million visitors per year would suddenly be off-limits to Missourians who have built family traditions similar to the Gray family’s.

This is no exaggeration.

The Missouri legislature already has slashed parks funding to the bone.  State parks receive no money from the General Revenue Fund.  Without the sales tax, Missouri’s state parks will virtually disappear.  And don’t confuse this sales tax with the one-eighth of 1-percent sales tax for the Missouri Department of Conservation.  That’s separate fund that is constitutionally separate from other state money.  There’s no way to rob the conservation fund to pay for parks.

If you use any of Missouri’s fabulous parks, or if you see value in having a park system that makes our state a better, more prosperous place to live, vote to renew this tax.  But that’s not enough.  Tell your friends and family that the parks tax is up for renewal and beg them to join you at the polls.  As of this writing, it has not been determined whether the vote will take place in August or November.  Watch this page for more information.

Four generations of David Gray’s family – ranging from 95 to 2 gathered for a photo to commemorate their most recent gathering at Roaring River State Park. “You are always young when visiting Missouri State Parks,” says Gray, “and that is one of the things that make our state parks very special places.”