COLUMBIA — It's getting harder to find a parking spot at Missouri State Parks.
According to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, visits to state parks increased 17 percent in the first seven months of this year compared with the same period in 2011.
The statistics were gathered by using electronic sensors that record vehicle traffic at park entrances.
Rock Bridge Memorial and Finger Lakes state parks in Boone County are no exception. From January through July, Rock Bridge saw 194,559 vehicles, an increase of 6 percent compared with the same months in 2011; likewise at Finger Lakes, where 85,025 vehicles have gone through the gates, a 9 percent increase.
Missourians and out-of-state visitors are using the state's park system to camp, hike, bike, swim and fish.
Brandon Bennett, a native of Columbia, used Rock Bridge as the setting for his engagement photos Wednesday evening.
Bennett, who visits the park regularly to ride his mountain bike, said he enjoyed coming to Rock Bridge because of the miles of trails at the park, which he described as "undisturbed."
Bennett is not the only one who is enjoying the trails at Rock Bridge.
"Earlier in the day is a good time to miss the crowd," Terry Wilson said.
Wilson, a resident of Columbia, bikes once a week and has been at it for more than 10 years. "I see the same people all the time," Wilson said, adding that the park is busier on the weekends.
The increase in state park recreation is also being used to make the case for increasing the amount of money for state parks.
Stewart Keating, an advocate for Environment Missouri, said the increasing number of people visiting Missouri's state parks "highlights the critical need for state parks to receive more funding."
Environment Missouri, the Missouri State Parks Association and 20 other organizations have been promoting an increased budget for the state park system. These organizations estimate that state parks are in need of an extra $200 million on top of the nearly $47 million already budgeted to Missouri State Parks.
Keating said that a limited state budget is affecting the maintenance of state parks by limiting groundskeeping and investment in roads, bridges and sewage treatment.
State parks have also been limited by a smaller staff since 2009, when 120 positions were cut, reducing the number of employees by 20 percent.
Rock Bridge has countered the reduction in park staffing by relying on volunteer help from Friends of Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.
Kevin Roberson, president of the volunteer group Friends of Rock Bridge, said that park officials are stretched thin, explaining that the employees at Rock Bridge also cover a portion of the Katy Trail.
"I am surprised with how many are out withstanding the heat," said Roberson, who lives near Rock Bridge. "I can definitely tell you there has been an increase."
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