CHARLESTON - West Virginia's expansive system of state parks draws big crowds looking to unwind or play in its mountains, rivers and lakes, but the eye-catching scenery is mixed with structures showing signs of decline.
State lawmakers preparing for the 2014 legislative session are looking at funding options for the upkeep of a network of 35 parks, seven forests, five wildlife management areas and two rail trails that attracted more than 6.6 million visitors last year.
One option that a top lawmaker would like to avoid is assessing a fee to enter the state parks.
This May 9, 2012, photo shows the Grandview State Park overlooking the New River Gorge National River in Grandview, W.Va.
The parks are an economic force, generating $127 million of economic activity.
The outdoor activities including hiking and biking let West Virginians work up a sweat in a state struggling with one of the nation's highest obesity rates.
Nearly 200 of the park system's almost 1,500 buildings are 75 years or older, Depression-era structures included in the backlog of needed repairs.
A legislative audit recommended infusing at least $3 million each year for major repairs to chip away at maintenance and renovations that total tens of millions of dollars.
Democratic Sen. William Laird, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, sees free entry to the parks as a tradition that deserves to be honored.
West Virginia is among a few states that don't charge an entrance fee to state parks.
"It's a way to give something back to the people in the form of recreational activities that might not otherwise be available to the people," Laird, the Senate majority whip, said in a recent interview. "I personally feel that we would want to exhaust lots of other potential avenues to address these issues that would be short of the entry fee option."