Economy, weather contribute to first attendance increase in 10 years at state parks and historic sites

Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Savannah Allen fishes Saturday in the Whitewater River just below the Burfordville Covered Bridge at Bollinger Mill State Historic Site. With Allen are, from far left, Chalen Robinson, Leo Allen, Jayden Allen, Dominick Allen, Lachi Reid and Crystal Allen. This was the first time the group had fished at the site. (LAURA SIMON)

A 10-year decline in attendance at Missouri's 85 state parks and historic sites ended in 2009, thanks to relatively calm weather and a lackluster economy making those destinations more attractive.

Missouri's parks and historic sites drew 1 million more visitors than in 2008, a 6 percent increase. The year's final figure of 15.9 million patrons is about 4 million shy of Gov. Jay Nixon's eventual attendance goal.

"When the weather is bad, people don't come out," said Judd Slivka, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. "But with improved weather conditions and people rediscovering parks because they're free and beautiful, we had a much better year than in 2008."

In Cape Girardeau County, Trail of Tears State Park experienced a 19 percent increase while Bollinger Mill State Historic Site in Burfordville saw 7 percent more visitors in 2009. Attendance at both was down in 2008 because of March floods.

Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park near Lesterville, Mo., reported the largest increase at 170 percent. The park drew in 112,592 in 2009, up from 41,699 in 2008. This year the park has attracted 18,300 visitors through April.

Marie Aldredge leads a group of Cub Scouts from Altenburg, Mo., and Frohna, Mo., on a tour of the Bollinger Mill State Historic Site at Burfordville.

Many facilities at Johnson's Shut-Ins were damaged or destroyed in December 2005 when a hilltop reservoir broke through a retaining wall, sending 1.3 billion gallons of water through the park. Some sections of the park reopened in 2006, with the picnic areas, store, interpretive pavilions and many of the hiking trails opening in June 2009. But the main campground remained closed until the end of last month.

Saturday marks the official grand reopening of the park. The new campground is about a mile from the old one and includes cabins, an area for those with horses and campsites with sewer, electricity and water.

"In lots of park surveys, Johnson's Shut-Ins was the most beloved," Slivka said. "Then the park sort of disappeared for a while, and now it's back. So we're hoping all those people who loved going to Johnson's Shut-Ins will come back and see this gorgeous park again."

Delecia Huitt, a field operations supervisor for 14 state parks and historic sites, including Bollinger Mill, said that last year people chose to stay closer to home because they were looking for ways to take a more economical vacation. While she didn't make a projection on whether 2010 would surpass 2009's attendance total, Huitt said she is encouraged by groups that have visited the parks and historic sites this year.

"All of my 14 parks have reported a high turnout on their school tours, and we're hoping that's a sign of things to come for the rest of the year," Huitt said. "What does this year hold? That would take a crystal ball."

Looking ahead toward the summer, Slivka said he's excited about the State Park Youth Corps program, which he believes will be a catalyst for future generations' interest in state parks and historic sites. About 1,300 people ages 17 to 24 are serving as outdoor ambassadors through Sept. 30, including 18 at Johnson's Shut-Ins, 17 at Trail of Tears and five at Bollinger Mill.

Funded by the federal Workforce Investment Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the program originally limited the Youth Corps to 1,000 participants, but more money was added to the program to increase that number by 300. Another 3,000 were on the waiting list when the program began May 1.

The participants' duties include construction on a half-mile section of Shepard's Point Trail and archive research at Trail of Tears, research of site-related history at Bollinger Mill and trail maintenance at Johnson's Shut-Ins.

"This will be good for the parks, good for the economy and good for those employed," Slivka said. "There's been a tremendous outpouring of support for this effort."


Pertinent addresses:

429 Moccasin Springs, Jackson, MO

148 Taum Sauk Trail, Middlebrook, MO

113 Bollinger Mill Road, Burfordville, MO

Attendance numbers:

Trail of Tears

2010 through April26,700

Bollinger Mill

2010 through April9,300

Johnson's Shut-Ins

2010 through April18,300

SOURCE: Missouri Department of Natural Resources

Map of pertinent addresses

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