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Other Views: Too few acres in state parks

“In 2011, the system exceeded a million visitors for a third consecutive year, and 2012 saw record numbers of campers and again exceeded a million visitors,” says the North Dakota park system’s 2011-12 annual report.

More than a million visitors? Well, that’s pretty good.

Except when you compare it with South Dakota, where Custer State Park draws close to 2 million visitors a year all by itself.

Face it, in almost any comparison with its neighbors, the North Dakota state parks system is going to come up short. Way short.

And supporters of the proposed conservation measure are smart to point that out, because the North Dakota system’s tiny size and minor impact are real drawbacks that the state’s other protected landscapes can’t make up for.

As this editorial page has pointed out for years and a Forum News Service story confirmed this week, North Dakota’s state park system is smaller than that of any other state except Rhode Island.

How small is small? This small: If you put all of North Dakota’s state parks together, they’d fit into a square less than 5 miles on a side.

For comparison, the Greater Grand Forks Greenway system encompasses 2,200 acres. That’s about a sixth the size of North Dakota’s entire 14,224-acre state-park system, or a ninth the size if you add recreation areas.

Also for comparison, South Dakota’s state park and recreation-area system is about four to five times the size of the comparable system in North Dakota.

And that makes a big difference in tourism. In South Dakota, the state’s parks and rec areas saw 7.8 million visitors in 2013, seven times the North Dakota figure and a huge boost to South Dakota’s tourism fame.

It’s true that lot of acres in North Dakota are listed as national grassland, national wildlife refuges or waterfowl protection areas. But it’s also true that those areas don’t cater to visitors the way state parks do.

The core mission of state parks is recreation, so the parks feature visitor centers, picnic areas, easy-access campgrounds and other amenities that draw families and other tourists.

That’s much less true in national wildlife refuges, for example. They’re set up primarily to conserve habitat and protect wildlife, not accommodate tourists. So, visitor centers and other hallmarks of “visitor-friendliness” are rare.

It’s also true that the North Dakota Legislature could expand the state’s park system. But think about Central Park in New York City. Clearly, buying up and setting aside that much acreage in Manhattan today would be astronomically more expensive and complicated than it was in the mid-1800s, when Central Park got its start.

So, too, in North Dakota, in 2014, where land prices make the buying of any additional acreage for parkland very difficult. Maybe the Legislature could be convinced. But it sure would help if the state had a big revenue stream dedicated to conservation, and that’s the money the conservation measure would provide.

To sum up, the conservationists have a point when they say North Dakota needs more land in state parks. Will that be a decisive point in November? We’ll see. But regardless of the election’s outcome, North Dakotans should find some way of expanding their park system in years to come.

The Grand Forks Herald’s Editorial Board formed this opinion.