Rhode Island’s natural and public assets – including 8,200 acres of parkland, 1,000 campsites, 400 miles of hiking and biking trails, 200 fishing spots, 25 parks, management areas, and nature preserves, and eight saltwater beaches – are magnets, attracting more than 9 million Rhode Islanders and tourists a year. They’re also an engine that add an estimated $315 million to the economy, generating nearly $40 million in state and local taxes and supporting nearly 4,000 jobs a year.

Over the past 15 years, however, budget and staffing cuts to the Department of Environmental Management’s Parks and Recreation Division, combined with increasing visitor use, longer seasons, aging facilities, and expanded responsibilities have hindered DEM’s ability to meet some park users’ expectations. The solution, according to a study released today by DEM, is a strategic, sustained, long-term investment to increase the self-sufficiency and economic potential of the park system, protect infrastructure, enhance programs, and bolster operations and staffing.

DEM partnered with two firms to develop the 112-page study: PROS Consulting Inc., an Indianapolis-based firm that has worked on more than 900 parks and outdoor recreation projects for governments and nonprofits in 48 states and 7 countries, and CHM Government Services, a Peabody, MA, firm that helps clients develop business strategies to optimize their hospitality and recreational assets and services. Over the course of almost a year, the authors examined every strategy, process, and practice of the Parks and Recreation Division. The report identifies “the key challenges and opportunities that will have the most impact on sustainable park operations.”

“Like so many Rhode Islanders, I grew up in a family that loved the Bay, beaches, and parks – and my husband and kids love them too,” said Governor Gina M. Raimondo. “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.”

“Our state’s spectacular beaches, parks, and green spaces offer a dazzling diversity of experiences, and every Rhode Islander deserves their own special spot to hike, bird watch, build a sandcastle, or simply get outside and relax in nature,” said DEM Director Janet Coit. “Investing in our parks will support the state’s broader efforts to grow our green economy, build a healthier Rhode Island, and strengthen our families and communities.”

Noting that Rhode island exhibits high park use and low investment compared with the rest of the nation – ranking 1st in visits per park acre but 47th in state spending per visit, according to the most recent statistics of the National Association of State Park Directors – the report recommends that DEM establish new pricing and fee-setting policies for special events, site rentals, and special uses based on the market value, cost of service, and classification of the service depending on essential, important, or value-added criteria.

The study grew out of work done by the RI Outdoor Recreation Council (ORC), a panel that was created by an executive order signed by Governor Raimondo in January 2016 and chaired by First Gentleman Andy Moffit. In its December 2016 report, ORC recognized the state park system as “a highly valued provider” in Rhode Island’s network of outdoor recreational resources. But “the ORC noted that reductions in funding combined with heavy and increasing use were having significant impacts and recommended a comprehensive staffing and operations study of RI state parks to ensure that the assets and resources are properly stewarded for future generations,” according to the report DEM released today.