Hypothetical, devastating.

Two words being used by state officials and local residents alike to describe the impact of the potential closure of 16 state parks and one state golf course.

As the list - created by Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department Executive Director Dick Dutton - began circulating on social media, reaction to how the state's third largest industry might react to a 14.5 percent reduction of operating costs came in waves.

Dutton said he had less than three days to complete the list.

Because of the time crunch, he utilized a list developed by the park system which ranks parks on a numerical scale based upon eight factors including the park's size, visitation, ownership of land, concessions, and alternative operating scenarios.

Dutton said he took the list, and began making cuts from the bottom, and worked his way up the list until he could realize the 14.5 percent potential reduction - which could mean up to a $2.513 million loss of revenue.

Dutton said after multiple years of cuts, there is no easy reduction left within the state's tourism division.

Dutton said for each park or marketing department closed, personnel reduction costs also had to be considered. While the gross operating budget reduction is $4.443 million, when the salaries of the 112 classified, unclassified and temporary part-time employees are factored in, the total reduction came to $2.430 million.

"It's a complicated process," Dutton said. "It's a sobering list.

"We don't want to close anything."

Dutton said the news of deep cuts comes as the park system was beginning its 80th birthday celebration in 2017.

"It's lovely timing," Dutton said, adding parks in the Western and Northeastern Regions of the state will be hit the hardest with the cuts."

At least two of the state's original parks: Osage Hills State Park and Boiling Springs are on the list.

Locally, state parks on the list include the four Grand Lake State Parks (Honey Creek, Bernice, Twin Bridges and Cherokee), Grand Cherokee Golf Course in Langley, and Natural Falls State Park in West Siloam Springs. 

"There was no objective thought to this process," Dutton said. "We did all of it by pure numbers. 

"It's a brutal list, if it becomes a reality."

Dutton continues to stress that the initial list of cuts remains hypothetical. 

"These are valuable assets the state maintains," Dutton said. "In tough times, sometimes the answer [to the question] is not what you want back."

Dutton said he hopes once the tourism department knows the extent of the cuts, officials can look at the list with subjective eyes and determine which parks would remain open, and which might be suited for alternative ownership.

"I don't see anyway we will not get cuts, unless the state can generate revenue for DHS, corrections and education," Dutton said. "I hope we will be able to rearrange priorities and still be operating every single park at the end of the day. [The parks] are economic engines."

Alternative plans

Dutton said members of his department have talked with Dan Sullivan, Grand River Dam Authority CEO, about the potential transfer of parks along Grand Lake to GRDA control.

Those talks, which began in 2016, were put on hold as GRDA officials dealt with the fallout of Northeastern Electric Cooperative (REC) and last summer's merger with the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission. 

Sullivan said he would be willing to talk with Dutton and the tourism commission again, but acknowledges things have changed since the last discussion took place.

"Never say never," Sullivan said. "But now that we are no longer serving the lake area for electricity, it presents less of an opportunity for us.

"Part of the reason [the discussion took place] because it would help promote the economic development [for the lake], which would have a positive impact on our customers.

"Since that's completely changed...it's something we'll evaluate."

'Cutting to the bone'

Chuck Perry, Grove businessman and member of the Oklahoma Tourism Commission, said the House of Representative's request to develop a plan to weather substantial cuts in Fiscal Year 18 is bothersome.

"The thing that truly bothers me is the legislature is asking them to make that much of a reduction of budget, when [the department] is already down more than 40 percent in the last six years," Perry said. "It's really cutting things to the bone. 

"You are cutting the third largest revenue producing industry in the state - at a time when the state needs revenue."

Perry likened the cuts to a businessman, reducing his advertising dollars simply because "business isn't good." 

Perry said he knows the public is concerned for high profile portions of the state budget - such as the monies designated for education, healthcare and the correctional system.

"Tourism makes the state money," Perry said. "You don't gut the agency that brings in money."

Perry said if the budget cuts come to fruition, he hopes the tourism department will work to find community groups or organizations to help assume ownership of the parks.

This process is not unknown. In fact, one of the cuts on Dutton's list includes the reduction of funds that is expected to take place now that operation of the Miami Travel Center on Interstate 44 has transferred to the City of Miami. 

"It's a cost savings measure, but it also puts our parks in the hands of people who have a more vested interest in the area," Perry said. "It keeps the parks open, and operating."

Perry said if the four Grand Lake State Parks close, the move would make a significant impact on the local economy.

"Bernice is a shining star from the standpoint of what it means for families and kids," Perry said. "It would be an absolute crime to shut it down."

Ultimately, Perry knows, how local parks are impacted will depend on the final budget cut. Those numbers may not be known until the House of Representatives passes the final budget. 

Perry said it will take legislators, working hand in hand with the state tourism commission, to help minimize the cuts.

"We will do everything we can to keep the parks open," Perry said. "We'll take the cuts from what hurts the state of Oklahoma and its people the least."

Reaction to the list

Edmond resident Tisa Smith expressed shock at the news that 16 parks - including four which ring Grand Lake could be impacted if state agency receives the expected cuts. 

Smith, like many, decided to travel with her children during the statewide spring break. 

She chose to bring her daughters to Grand Lake State Park-Bernice, because the facility offered something different, including a series of "Spring Break Out" workshops and a three-day science camp. 

"She [Raeyn] told me she would rather be cold and entertained, than warm and bored," Smith said, adding that her daughter's wish came true as they were staying the night in a tent.

"This gives her a chance to be outside, with very few creature comforts," Smith said, as she watched her 10-year-old interact with the displays at the nature center.

Gina Lindo of Peidmont, brought her children to the nature center. Her husband is working to renovate a lake home on Monkey Island, so the family decided to spend spring break at Grand Lake.

Lindo said her family has taken advantage of the programing offered at the state parks for years - admitting that they have their favorites.

In the last year, the Lindos have set a goal to visit additional state parks in the coming months.

Local reaction

Locals, like Todd and Amber Harrison and Sarah Husong, all of Grove, joined the spring break visitors during the educational session at the nature center.

As a leader and parent with both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scout Troops in Grove, Sarah Husong said she often brings students to the park to experience hiking and camping activities. 

When she saw her favorite parks included on the potential closing list, Sarah Husong admits she cried.

"It baffles me," Husong said. "Not just for this one, but for all Grand Lake parks.

"If they [close] everything local to us, how will it impact tourism," Husong questioned. "How can you get rid of something like this, that is based on tourism?"

As a member of Boy Scout Troop 713, Sarah Husong's son Cody often finds himself at the center.

"I like that it's very hands on," Cody Husong said. "You aren't just looking at something through a cage or tank."

For the Harrisons, the trip to the nature center came after learning about the special spring break programing. 

"It's important for them to get to know about our state and what kind of animals live here," Amber Harrison said. "This is a good place to come, with an hands-on environment that's child friendly."

Jedi Harrison, 5, said he was glad to have the chance to handle an Albino Corn Snake during a workshop at the nature center.

The kindergartener described his first experience holding a snake as "slimy."