If you have visited one of Missouri’s 88 state parks and historic sites recently, you probably know that our park system – just like the national parks system – is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. That’s good timing, because in a little more than a month Missourians will vote on whether to maintain their parks or allow them to wither away in order to save $6 a year in taxes. If that sounds like a stark choice, it is.
In the past 40 years, “tax” has become something of a four-letter word in many states. Up to now, Missouri has been an exception to this trend. In 1976, Show-Me State voters approved a sales tax of one-eighth of 1 percent to support conservation. In 1984 – well into the taxes-are-evil era, Missouri voters approved a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for state parks and soil and water conservation. There’s an important difference between these two taxes. The conservation sales tax is written permanently into the state’s constitution. The parks, soil and water conservation tax must be re-approved by voters every 10 years. Otherwise, it lapses.
So far, voters have twice renewed the tax that keeps our parks open, prevents millions of tons of our topsoil from washing down to the Gulf of Mexico and keeps our lakes, streams, springs and wells flowing clean. But as the old saying goes – ironically in this case – the only things that are certain in life are death and taxes. The continuation of the parks, soil and water tax is anything but certain. Free access to the outdoors is anything but certain. If too few people understand what is at stake when they go to the polls on Nov. 8, it could sound the death knell for parks like Bennett Spring, Johnson Shut-Ins, Taum Sauk Mountain, Current River, Elephant Rocks, Ha-Ha Tonka, Onondaga, Elephant Rocks, Lake of the Ozarks and Table Rock. These and other parks would have to reduce hours and services. Eventually some would be shuttered or sold off to private interests.
The same would be true of Arrow Rock, Mastodon, Nathaniel Boone Homestead, Mark Twain Birthplace and other state historic sites. In all, 88 places where Missourians go to remember their natural and cultural heritages are in peril if too many voters cast knee-jerk votes against a tax whose benefits are unknown to them. They need to know why they should want to continue paying for parks when they could reduce their tax burden by voting against it.
There are plenty of compelling economic reasons, such as the fact that a family of four pays just $24 a year for the privilege of visiting – with no entry fee – 53 state parks that preserve some of the best examples of the Show-Me State’s various types of forests, prairies, streams and lakes. Most Missourians don’t know that their parks generate more than $1 billion in tourism-related sales, much of it from out of state. They don’t know that parks support more than 14,000 jobs. That is a bargain by any measure.
You can help ensure that the parks, soils and water tax is renewed. All you have to do is get a sign and place it in front of your house or business. The Conservation Federation of Missouri has signs at its office just west of the State Capitol Building at 728 W. Main Street in Jefferson City. They are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. You might find it more convenient to pick up a sign at one of the Missouri Farm Bureau’s county offices. Or you can 573-634-2322 and make arrangements to receive signs. While you are at it, get several extras and ask friends who value Missouri state parks to put them in front of their homes. Talk to co-workers about the tax vote and explain to them why they should want to vote “Yes” to renew the tax. Another way to help is by liking the Citizens Committee Twitter account and Facebook page and sharing their posts and tweets. Every little bit helps.
Readers of a certain age will remember the refrain from the Joni Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Don’t wait until your parks are gone. You can ensure that we continue to have places for families to camp, fish, hike and rediscover why Henry David Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”