State Politics

Idaho state parks ‘do more with less’ five years after budget crunch threatened closures

Five years after Idaho Gov. Butch Otter proposed eliminating the state’s parks department and cutting all state funding — and fears mounted about park closures — Idaho’s state parks are thriving, with campsites booked and boat ramps beckoning.

State funding for parks in Idaho is still less than half of what it was in 2006. That is reflected in smaller staffs, a backlog of deferred-maintenance projects and reduced services during off-peak months. But all the parks have stayed open, and they’re welcoming record numbers of visitors this summer for everything from camping to weddings to paddle-board rentals to disc golf.

“Everybody predicted we’d have to close down parks,” Otter said recently. But he said all he really wanted back in 2010 was to “do more with less — and by golly, the Idaho folks did it.”

Budget cuts have forced states around the nation to consider sweeping closures of state parks over the past decade, though few actually ended up taking that step. Three states are looking at that now, however, including Wisconsin and Louisiana. A proposal in Alabama would close any park that doesn’t cover 100 percent of its operating costs, according to Lewis Ledford, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors.

Ledford believes that’s short-sighted, as it overlooks the value parks generate for the economies of their surrounding communities. Plus, he said, people support state parks.

“If citizens have a chance to vote to support funds for their parks, it’s overwhelmingly being popularly endorsed,” he said. And people also are “voting with their attendance:” State park visits are soaring nationwide, with the latest estimate of annual visitors topping 730 million.

Idaho’s 30 state parks include some gems, including heavily used Ponderosa, Lake Cascade and Eagle Island.

“Some parks can pay for themselves,” said state Parks Director David Langhorst. “Others can’t because of their nature.”

One park that isn’t self-sustaining isOld Mission State Park in North Idaho. Built by Jesuits and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and completed in 1853, the mission has a ceiling stained blue from huckleberries. Using only local materials and few tools, it was designed to echo the grand cathedrals of Italy.

“I have been in the mission when people walk in that door, and they just start crying,” said Park Manager Kathleen Durfee.

Fees have gone up

Langhorst said most people agree that preserving buildings like the Cataldo Mission is for the public good. The problem is that “it takes more to preserve those than you can extract in fees.”

Fees are charged there, and at nearly all Idaho state parks, and they have gone up as state support has fallen. It is the same story in virtually every state. The national group’s figures show Idaho’s fees are in line with or just slightly above national averages.

This year, Idaho has added a $3-per-night campsite fee for out-of-state campers, $5 on camper cabins or yurts, and 10 percent on group sites.

The state also continues to offer its $10 Parks Passport to Idaho residents, who can buy it when they renew their vehicle registration, and its $40 passport to out-of-staters. Both the annual passes cover the $5 daily vehicle entry fee for unlimited use all year at all state parks.

“It’s a screaming deal,” Langhorst said. The Passport program also has brought the state more than $1.2 million in gross revenue this year, and the numbers are slowly growing.

Camping fees and specific attraction fees, such as those for the “Sacred Encounters” exhibit at the Old Mission, come on top of that.

Idaho also tapped its recreational vehicle license fees for $1.6 million a year to tide the parks over during the worst of the budget crunch. This year, lawmakers replaced that money and returned the license fees to the RV program, which pays for RV facilities.

Idaho parks also are trying other ways to bring in revenue. They are renting “sand boards” that people can ride like snowboards down the dunes at Bruneau Dunes State Park in Southern Idaho. They are offering more “camper cabins” for people who want a rustic but more comfortable way to camp than in a tent.

And lawmakers this year cleared the way for corporate sponsorships within Idaho parks. That could lead to sponsored picnic shelters, visitor centers or interpretive programs. Langhorst said he hopes to take in a few hundred thousand dollars a year.

Supporters have stepped up

Tom Crimmins, a state parks board member from Hayden Lake, acknowledged that such moneymaking efforts aren’t “a savior.”

But when state officials asked park managers to operate more like businesses, “they really did,” Crimmins said. “The board and the director basically went to the folks and said, ‘Folks, you’ve got to be a business.’ And they stepped up ... They did some amazing things, they have some great ideas.”

Ultimately, Crimmins said, “We have a lot of support from the public for the parks and what they do for the people in Idaho.”

That’s shown up in increased use of volunteers in state parks, from campground hosts to local clubs taking on maintenance or upgrade projects in the parks. At Priest Lake State Park in North Idaho, volunteers operate everything from the entrance booth to the store, from interpretive programs to tasks such as painting and trail maintenance.

Shortly before Otter made his 2010 proposal to eliminate the parks system, cut all state funding and transfer remaining assets to the departments of Lands and Fish and Game, Idaho actually closed one park: Dworshak State Park near Orofino. The state was hoping the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the property, would take it over. The Corps said it couldn’t, and the park would close.

“The locals said, ‘Hey, we can’t afford that,’” said David White, northern region manager for the state park system. “It is one of the main recreational opportunities in Clearwater County.”

An outcry started there and spread statewide. With help from local governments, businesses, law enforcement and even labor from a nearby prison, Dworshak reopened four months later, though with a smaller staff and a more limited operating calendar. “They showed us this was important to them and they were willing to help,” White said.

At Otter’s direction, then-state Parks Director Nancy Merrill created business plans for every state park, and all began looking to generate revenues.

According to the latest estimate from the legislative budget office, in 2014, Idaho’s state parks were 94.6 percent self-sufficient. That varied widely by park. In North Idaho, for example, the legislative estimate showed Priest Lake, Farragut, Round Lake and Heyburn all earning more than they spent on base operations. But Old Mission State Park earned just 48.4 percent of its expenses, and the Coeur d’Alene Parkway just 31.6 percent.

Otter is pleased with the overall progress and isn’t proposing any more cuts to parks, though he says they will have to justify “every penny” they request.

“The final-final to the story is that we didn’t shut down a park,” he said. “The people of Idaho said, ‘No, we don’t want to shut ‘em down.’ ”

The Idaho Statesman contributed.