NEW YORK (Reuters) - As U.S. cities and states grapple with mounting deficits, parks are often the first on the chopping blocks, a trend that has left advocates for open space scrambling for new sources of funding.
Hundreds of state parks could close this year, according to the National Association of State Park Directors, and park supporters say the moves threaten to undercut ambitious carbon reduction and anti-obesity programs.
"Public parks and recreation are suffering mightily," said Richard Dolesh of the National Recreation and Park Association, who called funding cuts "short-sighted."
"The parks have a significant economic impact," said Dolesh. "They're clearly important for health and community livability. We should be saying, here is a very good expense at the taxpayer dollar."
Unlike state and city parks, the federally-funded U.S. national parks, like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, have not suffered from budget cuts.
New York state -- which is struggling to close a $9 billion deficit -- closed or reduced services at 64 parks this week, for a savings of about $6 million, the state's parks department said.
Earlier this year, the Arizona State Parks Board announced plans to close multiple parks, but has since reversed itself and is turning to outside groups for help.
Last year, California closed or reduced services at many of its 278 parks. It is not yet clear if funding will be restored because the state's budget has not been finalized as lawmakers struggle over how to close a $19.1 billion deficit.
"How much are we spending on fighting obesity and asthma that can be mitigated through parks?" said Geoffrey Croft, who heads New York City Parks Advocates. "It's a slap in the face."
On Monday, New York State Assemblyman Tim Gordon brought a lawn mower to John Boyd Thacher State Park, which had just been closed, to mow the grass himself in a bid to convince Governor David Paterson to restore funding to the park, which is near Albany, the state capital.
"We are willing to roll up our sleeves and get to work to show Governor Paterson how important these parks are to our families," Gordon said in a statement.
State and city funding for parks has been sliding for decades, as governments increasingly look to private donations to make up the difference.
In New York City, the Central Park Conservancy said it has contributed $390 million to the iconic Manhattan park since its founding in 1980, and it now supplies 85 percent of the park's $25 million annual budget.
But while the public-private model might work for the country's grandest parks, environmental groups say fund-raising dollars flow less freely to less glamorous green spaces.
"The high-visibility projects, you're able to raise the capital dollars," said Dolesh. "But it's the day-to-day operations and management of the park that's tough to grind out the funding for."
The potential of public-private partnerships for parks has been underscored with the creation of the $152 million High Line park in Manhattan, a venture between the city and the non-profit Friends of the High Line.
The group's backers include fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, and it has drawn in some of the highest individual gifts for a city park ever.
A recent proposal by the group for a plan to tax local residents, which would have generated about $1 million per year, was discarded after local residents complained they should not be expected to bear the cost of a city park.
Several states have instituted or are considering new taxes and fees. In November, California voters will consider a referendum on an $18 vehicle registration fee that would be passed onto the state's parks.
Similar programs have begun in Montana and Washington state, while Colorado directs lottery proceeds to its parks.
By law, nearly all U.S. states are required to balance their budgets each year, and when painful cuts are in order services like parks and libraries are seen as more expendable than education and health care.
But advocates for parks say the money allocated to green spaces is already minuscule -- often one-half a percent of a state's entire budget -- especially since parks bring in revenue from tourism.
In Arizona, the state's park system attracts more than 2 million visitors annually and generates a combined economic impact of more than $200 million a year, according to state figures.
New York Assemblyman Steve Englebright, noting the role of the state's $46 billion tourism industry, said: "If we close our parks, we may as well put up neon signs at the four corners of the state that say, 'Closed for Business.'"
Editing by Leslie Adler