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American Journal of Environmental Sciences
Year: 2009  |  Volume: 5  |  Issue: 2  |  Page No.: 187 - 196

Management Policy in and Typology of State Park Systems

Lowell Caneday, Debra Jordan and Yating Liang    

Abstract: Problem statement: Parks, with particular emphasis on national and state parks, host varied interactions between human and natural systems. In particular, state park systems manage important resources related to quality of life and also are mainstays in tourism, economic development and preservation of heritage and conservation of ecosystems. Management of these parks and the human activity occurring in them is an integral component of environmental science. Approach: This research focused on identifying the legal mandates, management policies and practices that define park operations in various states within the United States. This research was a precursor to benchmarking state park systems, essential to identifying similar and dissimilar systems for the purpose of identifying benchmarking partners. Utilizing the annual information exchange of the National Association of State Park Directors, the researchers conducted a K-means cluster analysis of state park systems across the United States. Results: A seven-cluster solution was found to be the best description of the fifty state park systems. Twenty five of thirty characteristics were identified as being significant factors in defining clusters of state parks. These significant factors included: (1) number of properties, (2) number of designated state parks, (3) number of recreation areas, (4) number of environmental areas, (5) number of scientific areas, (6) number of forests, (7) number of trails and (8) miles of trails. Interestingly, mission statements and types of oversight governmental agency were not defining factors in determining clusters of state parks. Conclusion/Recommendations: This cluster analysis of state parks is important as a foundation for benchmarking state park systems, permitting comparison with similar and dissimilar systems. It is also important for consideration of marketing state parks to visitors who desire particular experiences in specific environments. This analysis provided a better understanding of interactions between human activity and natural systems, offering management insight for improved practices.

Table 1.

In addition to utilizing the AIX data, the researchers compared the mission statements of the 50 state park systems and the type of agencies in which the 50 state park systems were housed. The results indicated that these elements were not significant in determining the clusters. To test the stability of the clusters, the researchers analyzed the AIX data from the previous year (2003) and found consistency across the years among the clusters of state park systems.

The first group defined by the analysis included five state park systems. This group was named "Rural Western Park Systems", despite the fact that New Hampshire was identified as one member of the cluster. The state park systems in this group were relatively small in total acreage, with an average of about 120,000 acres. Among their properties were a small number of "state park" designations totaling less than 25% of the total property, on average.

Table 1: Seven-cluster solution and membership of clusters

These state park systems did not have amenities such as lodges, golf courses, or restaurants, although they had cabins on their properties. State park usage was light, with annual visitation of slightly over four million. Day use visitors were overwhelmingly the majority of the visitors (over 90%). Most of these state park systems were supported by a variety of dedicated funds. The operational budget was small to medium, ranging from 2 million dollars to 27 million dollars. Most of these state park systems had fewer than 100 field positions, with an average of one field staff member for every two properties.

Twenty-five state park systems comprised the second cluster. This group was characterized as Traditional Resource park systems, which had an average acreage of nearly 250,000 acres per state. These state park systems identified a variety of property titles including such designations as recreation areas, natural areas, historical areas and "state park" designations. The state park designations constituted nearly 50% of the total number of properties. Most of these state park systems had cabins, but they tended not to have other developed amenities such as lodges, restaurants, or golf courses. The total number of visitors in these systems was approximately seven million annually. The operational budget of these state park systems was moderate, with an average of 20 million dollars. An average of two field staff members were assigned to each park property.

Nine state park systems belonged to the third cluster, which was characterized as Developed and Staffed for Tourism. In these systems, state park designations constituted the majority (about 70%) of the total property. These state park systems included a number of cabins and other amenities such as lodges, restaurants, retail stores, shops and golf courses. Some parks in this cluster included high-end development such as airports, cable television connections and internet provision. The number of annual visitors averaged 18 million and most of these park systems did not utilize entry fees. The average operational budget was large, at 47 million dollars. Further, these park systems averaged more than seven field staff members on each property.

The fourth group included seven state park systems, which were classified as Populous, Resource-based park systems. These systems had a large number of properties, averaging over 140, with one-third designated as state park. There were more trails in these park systems, averaging five designated trails per property. These state park systems had a number of developed amenities, including an average per system of more than 170 cabins, four lodges, four restaurants and one golf course. The average operational budget was considered large, topping 50 million dollars. Among these seven state park systems, six are in the top 20 most populous states in the United States. Therefore, it was not surprising that these park systems were heavily used, with annual visitors of over 28 million. An average of three field staff members were assigned to each property.

The fifth group and sixth groups were single member clusters, with California State Parks and New York State Parks in each group, respectively. Interestingly, both systems fell out as single member clusters in all of the cluster solutions. This indicates that California State Parks and the New York State Parks were so unique that they were completely distinct from other state park systems.

California State Parks is a large, comprehensive system with over 250 properties including a variety of areas in addition to state park designations, these include recreation areas, natural areas and historical areas. This single-member cluster was identified as California. The system included almost 1.5 million acres of land and almost 2000 trails. The system provided a variety of amenities: 60 cabins, 5 lodges, 14 restaurants and three golf courses. The California State Parks system received more than 80 million visitors annually. It had a 290 million dollar operational budget with numerous dedicated revenue sources. The system had approximately four field staff members per property.

New York State Parks had the largest number of properties of all the states. This cluster was characterized as small-staffed, complex and comprehensive and was identified as "New York." The system had over 860 properties with a great variety of property designations. The total acreage topped 1.5 million acres. The system operated over 750 cabins, four lodges, 28 restaurants and 19 golf courses and received over 50 million visitors annually. The New York State Parks system had a 160 million dollar operational budget with numerous dedicated revenue sources. Interestingly, they had a very small number of staff members per property, with an average of one field staff member per five properties. This implies a reliance on a great number of contracted laborers for the state park system.

The last cluster included two state park systems: Iowa State Parks and Maryland State Parks and was labeled "Isolated Small State Park System". This cluster had 100 properties on average, with one third of those properties designated as "state parks". The total acreage of property was over 160,000 acres and only two trails existed in the park systems. The two systems operated over 200 cabins and one restaurant, but no lodges or golf courses, annual visitation averaged over 12 million with a heavy concentration of day visitors. The operational budget was approximately 27 million dollars, with many dedicated revenue sources. Neither of the two systems utilized entry fees and the field staff averaged two per property.

Significant Descriptors of Clusters: In addition to performing K-means cluster analysis to group the 50 state park systems and identifying state park systems that were similar and dissimilar from each other, the researchers conducted an analysis of variance (ANOVA) to discover the significant descriptors among the 30 characteristics in determining the clusters. The alpha level was set at 0.01.

Table 2: ANOVA source table for property descriptors (Group A) (N = 50)
Significance level at α = 0.01

Table 3: ANOVA source table for property characteristics (Group B) (N = 50)
Significance level at α = 0.01

As shown in Table 2 and 3, the results showed that among 12 property characteristics, eight characteristics were significantly different from each other among the 50 state park systems. These defining property characteristics were: (1) number of properties, (2) number of state parks, (3) number of recreation areas, (4) number of environmental areas, (5) number of scientific areas, (6) number of forests, (7) number of trails and (8) miles of trails.

Table 4 reports the significant and defining factors among the characteristics of amenities within these state park systems. All of the four measures of amenities for visitors: (1) number of cabins, (2) number of lodges, (3) number of restaurants and (4) number of golf courses-were significant descriptors. Table 5 shows the results of the significant descriptors among the visitor characteristics. The number of day users and the number of overnight users were the significant descriptors.

All of the operational characteristics were significant descriptors, as demonstrated in Table 6 and Table 7. These eight significant operational characteristics included: (1) total operation budget, (2) total annual revenue, (3) revenue from general funds, (4) revenue from dedicated funds, (5) total capital expenditure, (6) revenue from entry fees, (7) revenue from concessions and (8) types of dedicated funds.

Three of four characteristics of personnel or employment patterns within these state park systems were significant, as shown in Table 8. Full-time central office personnel, part-time central office personnel and full-time field positions were significant descriptors.

Table 4: ANOVA Source Table for State Park Amenities (N = 50)
Significance level at α = 0.01

Table 5: ANOVA source table for visitor characteristics (N = 50)
Significance level at α = 0.01

Table 6: ANOVA source table for operational characteristics (Group A) (N = 50)
Significance level at α = 0.01

Table 7: ANOVA source table for operational characteristics (Group B) (N = 50)
Significance level at α = 0.01

Table 8: ANOVA source table for personnel/employment patterns (N = 50)
Significance level at α = 0.01

In summary, among the 30 and 25 characteristics were significant descriptors for distinguishing differences among clusters and five characteristics were not significant. The characteristics that did not contribute to the distinction among clusters were: (1) Number of natural areas, (2) Number of historical areas, (3) Number of fish and wildlife areas, (4) Total acreage and (5) Part-time field positions. In addition, as indicated earlier, the mission of the respective state park system and the agency of oversight for the system were found not to be significant in distinguishing among the clusters.


In the United States, long-standing dialogues exist about the significance of (1) The unit in which a state parks system is housed and (2) The influence of a well-articulated mission statement on agency function and success. This research indicates that neither of these two factors is important in defining the actual operation of a state park system.

It appears as though the reality of a given management approach is dependent upon the realities ‘in the field’ -infrastructure requirements, maintenance demands and staffing and budget limitations rather than a well-intentioned mission statement. If this is the case, it seems as though management has two options. First, if mission statements are to be more than guiding platitudes, they must be openly reflected in field decisions and actions. Thus, it would be important to continually educate and re-educate field staff about the mission statement and its intended impact in operations. Further, if a mission statement is to have an influence on decisions and actions in the field, staff will have to be made accountable for making decisions and taking actions in ways that clearly reflect the stated mission.

The second approach would be to acknowledge a mission statement as a public relations device, perhaps one that captures the over-arching goal of a park system in such a way as to be communicated to the public. At the same time, it would be important for management to recognize and acknowledge the physical, staffing and fiscal demands of a park system as the driving forces behind the management and operation of a park system.

In addition to learning what factors do not impact approaches to park management, this research presents a model that provides a basis for differentiation and integration of factors that define park systems. This model provides evidence for the elements of the human-nature interactions we see in environmental science. These include park amenities, users and staff (who presumably facilitate interactions between visitors and the environment), as well as the environmental factors such as property characteristics. By considering the factors that ‘clump’ and differentiate park systems, we offer a sound foundation for comparison-benchmarking, which is becoming increasingly important to administering entities.

Further, environmental modification (i.e., development of amenities) is frequently irreversible. Yet it is that environmental modification that tends to define and classify a park system. Management must evaluate their planning for environmental modification in light of effects such development has on delivery of services, attraction of visitors and long-term impact on important resources within a specific state.


State parks have become important locations in which people interact with nature. In addition, these interactions between people and their environments have become important factors in sustaining quality of life, in sustaining economic health in various communities and in managing natural environments for present use while conserving them for future generations. While the various state park systems have similar roots in history and purpose, they have matured into quite disparate management systems.

Since state parks are public domain, these properties should be clearly identified in marketing available to the public. With the variety of state agencies and legal mandates for state parks, at least a portion of the public perception of state parks is based on mission and vision statements combined with title of the oversight agency. This research can assist with clarifying the marketing of state parks by providing definitive statements of the characteristics present in a given state park system. For people familiar with state parks in multiple states, a comparative clustering would also be helpful.

The legislative mandates on which these state park systems are based vary, but those mandates are not the distinguishing factors between the systems. The governmental agencies under which these systems operated vary, but those administrative homes are not the distinguishing factors between systems. However, state park systems should show a higher correlation between reality of management and the mission statements utilized. This research may assist by identifying variance between operation in practice and mission statements. Management can then more clearly focus on the desired emphasis by reducing that variance.

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