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Missouri is home to one of the best state parks systems in the country. How did that come to be?

A view of Elephant Rocks State Park during the fall.
Missouri Division of Tourism | Flickr
A view of Elephant Rocks State Park during the fall.

It is said Missouri is home to one of thebest state park systems in the country. How did it get to be this way? And what hurdles does it face going forward?

“We’ve been in the top four the past few years now, and we’re also considered the number one trail state,” said Steve Nagle, the board president of the Missouri Parks Association, an advocacy group that supports the state parks system. “We’re really proud of that legacy.”

Missouri’s state parks are free to attend; there is no entrance fee, making Missouri one of eight states in the country to provide that park service for free.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed the history and future of the parks with Nagle, and two other people who work closely with the parks: Susan Flader, professor emeritus of Western and Environmental History at University of Missouri and author of "Missouri State Parks and Historic Sites: Exploring Our Legacy, Second Edition,” as well as David Kelly, the deputy director of operations at the Missouri State Parks.

As for what has made the parks system remarkable over the years, Flader said it is the parks’ mission to emphasize both natural resources and cultural/historical resources by equal measure.

“We’re modeled on the national park system with historic sites and parks as part of the system,” Flader said. “The other thing [that makes ours successful] is really strong citizen support, the consistent funding of the parks and soil sales tax, which is not adequate but consistent, and the quality of management and staff of state parks over the years.”

The parks, soils and water sales tax is a key source of funding for the state parks system. It was first collected in 1985, after being approved by the Missouri legislature in 1984. It has been renewed several times since it was initially approved. In the 2016 election, it was approved by 80 percent of voters in Missouri and every single county in the state gave it a majority vote.

That doesn’t mean the park system hasn’t struggled with funding. That sales tax was meant to fund facilities, but after the parks lost some of their general revenue funding in 1990, that tax went to serve the parks as a whole. In the past two years, the state parks system has been the target of political efforts aiming to stop the creation of new parks.

“We’d like to get back to that era where legislators say ‘we love our state parks, what can we do to help?’ rather than ‘what can we do to hurt our state parks?’” Nagle said.

Kelly said that the system now has 91 parks and historic sites scattered throughout the state. Last year, that number was 88.

“Over the years, we have a comprehensive plan where we look at areas of the state that aren’t represented with parks, Kelly said. “We get offered a lot of properties over the years that we don’t think meet the criteria, but we look for spots that we think are interesting.”

In the St. Louis area alone, there are over 12 state parks within an hour of the city center.

“There’s water recreation, cabins, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, birding and campgrounds that range from primitive to hook ups,” Nagle said. “I’d encourage everyone in the St. Louis region to not go much further than your own backyard.”

Listen to the full discussion which spans from activities that will be held in the park during the solar eclipse on Aug. 21 to the best campgrounds to try for water recreation:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.