In 1967, the General Assembly passed legislation creating the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (PRT), governed by the PRT Commission, whose primary functions were to promote tourism in the state, operate the state parks system, and assist local governments in the development of recreation facilities and programs. Specifically, the new agency was authorized to:
(a) promote, publicize and advertise the state’s tourist attractions;
(b) promote the general health and welfare of the people of the state by developing and expanding new and existing recreational areas, including the existing state park system;
(c) develop a coordinated plan utilizing to best advantage the natural facilities and resources of the state as a tourist attraction, recognizing that the state has within its boundaries mountainous areas and coastal plains, each of unsurpassed beauty, which with the easy accessibility now existing and being provided, has the potential of attracting many visitors in all seasons to take advantage of the natural scenery, the outdoor sports, including hunting, fishing and swimming, together with other recreational activities such as golfing, boating and sightseeing
(d) to preserve and perpetuate our state’s rich historical heritage by acquiring and owning, recognizing, marking and publicizing areas, sites, buildings and other landmarks and items of national and statewide historical interest and significance to the history of our state.
This new directive gave the parks division the implied mandate to promote the parks as tourist magnets. At the same time, it caused the division to face a problem, similar to that faced by the National Park Service: to preserve natural and historic areas while providing for increased visitation and expanded recreational opportunities. These new directives paved the way for the concept of the resort park, a state-operated facility with a higher level of operations than that traditionally associated with state parks.
At the request of the new commission, the National Park Service completed a study of the park system in 1968, adapting the principles governing the national parks for the state parks. In general it was a restatement of the earlier principles from the 1930s. It recommended that only sites of the highest scenic, recreational, historic, scientific, and educational values and statewide significance be considered for state parks. It debunked the theory of distribution of state parks based on arbitrary distances (50 miles) and noted that park status must be based on unique or exceptional value. It also recommended that existing or proposed parks which are duplicative of parks in the vicinity, have characteristics of only local interest, or serve local needs should not be added to the state park system.
PRT also acquired planning and administration functions for federal Land and Water Conservation Funds (LWCF) in 1967 from the Department of Wildlife and Marine Resources. This required development of a state comprehensive outdoor recreation plan (SCORP) to be eligible for the funds. The new SCORP recommended the development of a wide variety of recreational sites, emphasizing comprehensive and broad-based recreational offerings. It supported local recreation needs and an even geographical distribution of sites. While the plan assumed that local governments would fill much of the need, the realities were that many rural areas, especially counties without “home rule,” were not in an economic or political position conducive to developing and operating recreational areas. Therefore, the state often stepped in to provide the local recreation services. Coupled with the large influx of federal funds for park acquisition and development, this led to the rapid growth of state parks. Sixteen new park properties were acquired in six years and twelve were opened to the public.
Federal funds encouraged the rapid acquisition and development of new parks, but did not provide for operating or staffing the parks. The problem was compounded when Charles Towne Landing was handed over to PRT at the conclusion of the State Tricentennial Celebration in 1970 and again during the US Bicentennial Celebration in 1976, when several historic sites were donated or sold to PRT.
Hickory Knob and Santee, the first parks branded “resorts,” were planned or evolved to offer a variety of non-traditional items such as special accommodations, golf, tennis, archery, skeet/trap shooting, meeting facilities, and restaurants. However, resort-type operations increased the maintenance and operations costs at such parks and brought on the need for more specialized employees.
Staffing at many of the new parks acquired in the 1970s came largely through reassignment of personnel from other parks. Also, several budget cuts in the late 1970s and early 1980s decreased park field personnel. This resulted in lower levels of staffing throughout the system and reduced levels of visitor service and maintenance.
To assist with increased costs, entrance fees were instituted at selected parks. It began in 1976 at Myrtle Beach and Dreher Island to control unnecessary traffic in the parks, but by 1982, ten other parks were collecting fees mainly for revenue enhancement.
The public accepted user fees almost without question, indicating a trend away from general taxes and toward the direct charging of fees to those benefiting most from the service. President Reagan's tax cuts of the early 1980s further emphasized this trend and the Land and Water Conservation Fund received severe cuts for state and local recreational development.
A major challenge came along in 1986, when the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that government employees at all levels, except for certain exempt management and professional classifications, were entitled to overtime compensation for all work over 40 hours per week. Many park personnel had been working over 70 hours per week during the peak season, due to the increase in facilities and decrease in total staff over the previous decade.
The court ruling caused the immediate loss of man-hours to the park system equivalent to 71 full-time employees. The initial reaction was to drastically reduce the operating hours of all parks except those producing surplus revenue. The General Assembly responded by authorizing 62 new positions to bring most of the parks back to full operation. Thirteen of the smaller parks remained at reduced hours.
The court mandate did provide some positive benefits besides reduced employee workloads. Specially trained personnel could now be hired for maintenance and visitor services, leading to improvement in both operations and interpretive programming. It has helped increase the overall professionalism in the field positions.
In an effort to improve the state parks, the South Carolina State Park System adopted a strategic management plan in 1987. It was an in-house effort to look to the future, re-focus priorities, and concentrate scarce resources. A variety of long-range actions were recommended by the plan concerning the protection of natural and historic areas, recreational use, interpreting natural and historic features, acquisition needs, surplus land, and overall park assessments. A number of these actions have been completed as funding and staffing have allowed.
The state parks faced another challenge in 1989 when South Carolina received a direct hit from Hurricane Hugo, closing 16 state parks for varying periods of time. The hurricane hit the South Carolina coast from Folly Beach to Myrtle Beach and continued inland up the Cooper, Santee, Wateree, and Catawba basin. It caused approximately $4.5 million in damage at state parks, primarily to replace or repair equipment and facilities and to clean up debris.
By the 1990s, eco-tourism began to grow worldwide and nature-based tourism began to be recognized in South Carolina as an economic force, especially in rural areas. Most of the state parks now offer nature-based experiences, from hiking, bird watching, and nature programs to canoeing and backcountry camping. A state ad hoc committee, including several PRT staff, met several times to discuss issues related to nature-based tourism and, in 1994, formed the South Carolina Nature-Based Tourism Association. The popularity of nature-based activities offers the state parks opportunities to market to this market segment.
About the same time, heritage tourism was also recognized as a valuable asset in the rural areas of the state. Through grassroots efforts with PRT's assistance, the South Carolina Heritage Corridor was established, linking 14 counties from Charleston to Aiken to Oconee counties. A number of state parks are located in this corridor and have become major resources for the corridor as it continues to develop in its role of helping local communities capitalize on their own potential as diverse, unique destinations for tourists and other visitors.
Recreational trends in the 1990s include an aging society with more retirees, continued concern for the environment, more partnerships, new recreational equipment, increased transportation opportunities, and changes in work, recreation, and leisure patterns. Due to new work patterns (both spouses working, longer work hours, etc.), Americans are recreating closer to home, often taking a number of short trips rather than one long vacation. For some, air travel has increased opportunities for traveling long distances but vacationing for short periods of time (three to four days). Leisure travel is also being mixed with business travel more frequently than in the past. New sports and new equipment continue to change the way people recreate. For example, mountain biking, in-line skating, off-highway vehicles, jet skis, sporting clays, bass tournaments, and fly fishing are some activities that are on the rise; perhaps to be lasting trends, or just passing fads. Camping vehicles and trailers continue to get larger and campground users are demanding services often provided at private campgrounds such as sewer hook-ups and cable TV.
The State Park Service continues to adapt to meet these trends and economic realities, as well as to enhance its ability to act as steward and interpreter of the considerable cultural, historic and natural resources in the 80,000 acres under its management. Such programs as Discover Carolina, which brings more than 25,000 school children a year to the parks and the State House for tours and curriculum-based science and history programs, are a result of that effort. The environmental stewardship message also has been emphasized in the creation of the interactive education centers on the coast at Huntington Beach and Edisto Beach state parks, while the Jones Gap education center in the mountains continues to be popular for students and adults alike. The State Park System also is actively participating in helping to generate an understanding and appreciation of South Carolina’s major role in the Revolutionary War. In fact, the system’s most recent addition is Musgrove Mill State Historic Site, commemorating and interpreting a pivotal 1780 battle. The park on the Enoree River near Clinton opened in 2003.