Increasing visitor usage, budget and staffing cuts, and the cost of maintaining aging facilities are combining to strain the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s ability to maintain state parks, beaches and other recreation sites, according to a report by an outside consultant.

PROVIDENCE — Increasing visitor usage, budget and staffing cuts, and the cost of maintaining aging facilities are combining to strain the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s ability to maintain state parks, beaches and other recreation sites, according to a report by an outside consultant that’s set to be released on Monday.

“The Rhode Island State Park system is at a critical crossroad,” the 112-page report commissioned by the DEM says. “Without a concerted effort to increase staffing and funding, the system will continue to deteriorate, and the Department will be unable to keep some facilities open and adequately staff and maintain others.”

The gloomy projection comes at a time when Rhode Island’s park system is arguably more popular than ever, ranking first in the nation for visitors per acre and visitors per full-time staff, supporting 3,700 jobs in the state and generating $312 million in economic development, according to the report by Indianapolis-based PROs Consulting.

But while the number of annual visitors to the state park system has steadily increased in recent years to more than 9 million — including a 37-percent spike in beach visits just since 2010 — staffing has gone in the opposite direction. The number of full-time employees in the park system has dropped by two-thirds in the past 30 years, from 123 workers in 1989 to 42 today.

To put that number in context, best practices recommend one employee for every 30 acres of maintained land, according to the consultants. Rhode Island has one for every 67 acres.

The staffing levels, which the report describes as “critically low” in some places, have led to an over-reliance on seasonal workers and independent contractors, a shortfall in daily maintenance, including cleaning, and a reduction in the number of park police officers and educational programs.

“It’s a slowly downward spiral where you scramble to deal with every situation thrown at you, but you don’t have the resources to do all the things you want to do,” DEM director Janet Coit said.

Despite the high usage of the parks, the system has failed to maximize potential revenues to support operations and maintenance. The Rhode Island system ranks 47th in the nation in spending per visit, the report says.

The consultants, who have done similar reports in other states and countries, recommend ways to make the parks system self-sustaining by increasing potential revenues. To that end, the report urges the creation of two to three business development positions to work on sponsorship agreements, leases and concessions, to cultivate donors, and to attract grants.


Examples include events like the Newport Jazz Festival or the Volvo Ocean Race, held in Fort Adams State Park, or contracts like the five-year deal awarded to REI allowing the company to rent kayaks, paddleboards and canoes in Lincoln Woods State Park.

Coit said that creating a business development office is a sensible first step to turn the situation around. Bringing in more money could then fund more staffing additions, she said.

When asked whether Gov. Gina Raimondo’s budget proposal set to be released on Thursday would include additional funding for the parks system, spokesman Josh Block would not offer specifics.

In a statement, the governor spoke in support of the park system and the report’s recommendations.

“With the recommendations made by this report, we have a real opportunity to celebrate, invest in, and preserve our parks so they continue to increase value to Rhode Island, encourage healthy living across communities, and provide a backdrop for sharing special times with family and friends,” Raimondo said.

The Rhode Island park system is spread across 8,200 acres, and includes 1,000 campsites, 400 miles of hiking and biking trails, 200 fishing spots, eight saltwater beaches and 25 parks, management areas and nature preserves.

The report grew out of work done by the Outdoor Recreation Council, which Raimondo created in 2016 and tasked with developing a plan to grow the recreation system in Rhode Island. The subsequent report by the council, chaired by First Gentleman Andy Moffitt, recognized the staffing shortfall and the problems it was creating.


The PROs Consulting report recommends increasing the number of administrative support staff to take the burden off managers, hiring up to 12 additional maintenance workers, and, to reduce the $245,000 paid annually to outsource plumbing, electrical and arborist services, adding six skilled-labor positions.

Another issue facing the system is the cost of maintaining buildings and other facilities. The DEM estimates that the parks system is facing more than $47 million in costs to repair and replace facilities.

The report makes clear that Rhode Island has exceptional park resources, said Coit, and she hopes that its findings will help galvanize support for a system that is beloved by many.

“We have something so precious and so incredible and we’re not taking care of that,” she said.

“We need people to step up, starting with DEM, but with the support of decision-makers and funders.”

—akuffner@providencejournal.com

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