The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

February 7, 2014

State looks to add more options at 10 Ala parks


Associated Press

— ANNISTON, Ala. (AP) — Zip lines or canopy tours at Cheaha State Park? Maybe in the not-too-distant future.

Alabama State Parks, the state agency that operates the state's parks and resorts, wants to partner with outdoor adventure sports operators to bring more recreational activities to 10 state parks including Cheaha, according to director Greg Lein.

The idea grew out of a partnership in Gulf State Park that created the Gulf Adventure Center, Lein said Wednesday. The Gulf Adventure Center, which offers offers zip lines — wire lines installed at various heights above ground that people coast down in harnesses through the force of gravity — paddleboards and kayaks, opened in the park last spring.

Currently closed for the winter, the center is a private operation working in the state park as a concession vendor, Lein said. The partnership has worked so well, the officials from the park system would like to explore doing it at other parks including Joe Wheeler, Monte Sano, Guntersville, DeSoto, Lake Lurleen, Cheaha, Oak Mountain, Wind Creek, Chewacla and Lakepoint, he said.

Cheaha, a 2,799-acre park in the heart of the Talladega National Forest, currently offers camping, hiking, biking, swimming, fishing and geocaching. A hotel and a group lodge are operated there. It is on the route of the annual Cheaha Challenge, a 100-plus-mile bike ride that starts in Jacksonville and runs through Adam's Gap in the park and back to Jacksonville.

Adding other recreational activities might pull more people into the park, Lein said.

"This is a means to expand visitorship," Lein said. "It's also an opportunity for us to remind folks that there's a lot of fun adventures to have in an Alabama State Park."

The partnerships also could benefit the communities surrounding the parks by bringing in tourists and creating jobs at the venue as well, Lein said, adding the Gulf Adventure Center has attracted more first-time visitors to the park.

Some residents seem at least interested in the idea.

"I would love it," wrote Lisa Marie Smith of Hollis, in a message to The Star. "It would keep people from going somewhere else and spending their money in other counties."

A zip-lining enthusiast, Smith is heading to Georgia to go zip-lining and would enjoy having a course closer to home, she wrote.

However, however, worry about the zip lines becoming an eyesore for the park. Lein acknowledged that fear.

"We try to take into consideration the aesthetics," Lein said. "We're going to be looking for proposals where they have blended it into the landscape."

Ney Landrum, a former state park director in Florida for 19 years and the author of "The State Park Movement in America," said he believes adding thrill-type activities to state parks is antithetical to the role of state parks. Such parks date to the late 19th century and were created to fill the gaps between national parks, Landrum said.

State parks are meant to provide an alternative type of recreation that takes advantage of the natural setting, said Landrum. States that add too much commercial enterprise run the risk of changing the whole atmosphere of the parks, Landrum said. Zip lines can be built anywhere, but nature can't be recreated, he said.

"Things are changing; I realize that," Landrum said. "You've got to think ahead a century or two when these may be the only remnants of natural settings."

Derrick Crandall, president and CEO of the American Recreation Coalition, an organization that protects outdoor recreational activities, said declining visitation is a problem at national parks. Last year visits were down 5 percent, Crandall said. A recent study showed one reason is that the parks aren't appealing to younger, urban Americans. They want activities such as zip-lining, he said.

By inviting the public-private partnerships, Alabama is joining an increasing trend.

"It is both a long-standing tradition and a trend," Crandall said. "At the federal level, there are all kinds of things people can do at national parks."

For instance, he said 60 percent of all skiing in the United States takes place in national forests, and in 2011 Congress passed legislation that encourages non-winter activities, such as zip lines, in ski areas on U.S. Forest Service lands. Congress thought it would help increase employment in rural areas and increase revenue, Crandall said.

The private operators collect fees for the activities and a portion of those fees is paid back to the host — in the case of the ski slopes to the Forest Service, Crandall said.

In the case of the private operators in Alabama, the Alabama State Parks would receive the funding, Crandall said.

In Gulf Shores, individuals brought the idea of a partnership to the park system, but now the park system is soliciting partners, Lein said. The system is requesting qualifications from interested operators by Feb. 28 and in March, state officials will ask for proposals for what operators would do in the parks.

The operators would be responsible for the design, construction, maintenance, operation and insurance of whatever venture is agreed upon. According to Lein, the park system would be sharing its 4 million annual visitors and providing a beautiful setting. No public funding would be involved other than staff time to evaluate the proposals, he said.