Don't Kid Yourself. There's No Such Thing as a Free Park

The public­—and politicians­—love that Ohio's state parks don't charge admission fees. But that policy comes with a cost.

Dave Ghose
Columbus Monthly
Park visitors at Hocking Hills

Ohio’s state parks and nature preserves are vast, diverse and beautiful—treasures that Columbus Monthly celebrates in our June cover story. In this feature, we highlight a broad range of activities and amenities you can enjoy on state public lands, from mushroom foraging to bird-watching. But perhaps the most unique attribute is this: Ohio is one of just seven states that charges no entrance fees to its parks.

To no surprise, this policy, which dates to the founding of the park system in 1949, is popular with the public. Parks officials, however, have more mixed feelings. While working for former Ohio Gov. George Voinovich in the 1990s, Mary Mertz, the state’s current Ohio Department of Natural Resources director, discussed with then-state parks chief Glen Alexander the possibility of instituting an admission fee, which would have provided the state agency with a reliable funding stream. Voinovich wasn’t interested in the idea back then, Mertz says, nor is her current boss, Gov. Mike DeWine. “Keeping the parks free so that it’s an opportunity for absolutely everyone in Ohio to go out and enjoy them is really central to what we do,” Mertz says.

Guide to Ohio State Parks:Discover Ohio's Vast and Diverse State Parks and Nature Preserves

Indeed, one of the oldest lessons in Ohio politics is never limit access to state parks. Case in point: the 1974 governor’s race. In an election that saw Democrats sweep into office across the country because of the Watergate scandal, Ohio’s Democratic governor, John Gilligan, lost to Republican Jim Rhodes—an upset many attribute in part to Gilligan’s decision to temporarily close state parks as a cost-cutting measure.

Gilligan’s successors have taken that lesson to heart, and the park system has remained free even as funding has fluctuated. And while Mertz and her ODNR colleagues have benefited in recent years from increased funding, she recognizes that consistent revenue remains a long-term challenge for the system. To that end, she launched in 2021 the Ohio State Parks Foundation, an independent nonprofit focused on protecting and enhancing state parks through donations from private sources. She’s recruited lawyers, conservationists and a former governor, Bob Taft, to serve on the foundation’s board, as well as hiring Lisa Daris, former director of the Ohio to Erie Trail, to lead the organization.

The truth is there is no such thing as a “free” park. If entrance fees aren’t providing revenue, the state must find other ways to maintain its natural treasures.

This story is from the June 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.