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Who will carry on Dirk Kempthorne’s leadership for Idaho state parks?

Dirk Kempthorne was an advocate for parks as Idaho governor and secretary of the Interior. He’s pictured here at Grand Canyon National Park in 2008.
Dirk Kempthorne was an advocate for parks as Idaho governor and secretary of the Interior. He’s pictured here at Grand Canyon National Park in 2008. Statesman file

The visitor center at Ponderosa State Park recently was named in honor of former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. When governor, he started an “Experience Idaho” initiative. He had great vision and ideals in regard to Idaho’s outdoor scenery and resources.

Gov. Kempthorne asked the Legislature for $30 million to make state park improvements. About $15 million would be appropriated. Numerous improvements would occur during his tenure, such as: three new visitor center/park office buildings; acquisition of the old Lakeview Village at Ponderosa and conversion into a day-use area with visitor center, four cottages, a shelter, restrooms and a new 50-unit RV campground; matching funds with donations from the Scoville family to build a conference center at Harriman; and building a few badly needed residences for park staff.

Gov. Kempthorne had a dream for selecting and acquiring a new state park in Southeast Idaho. He also put together a master plan for developing Eagle Island State Park which he referred to as the “central park” for the Boise Valley.

After his departure came the antithesis of Kempthorne’s park efforts. A proposal was made to abolish the Department of Parks and Recreation with discussions of park closures. Gov. Kempthorne envisioned the parks as places that were valuable beyond their monetary worth, while the succeeding administration viewed them as assets to make money for the state. In the end, the Department of Parks and Recreation was targeted for significant budget cuts. Further, a verbal edict of “no new state parks” was put in place.

The result is that today there is more than $30 million worth of deferred maintenance needs in the Idaho state parks. It should be no wonder to anyone why the State Park Board decided to name a visitor center in honor of Dirk Kempthorne.

Unfortunately, Gov. Kempthorne left some unfinished business. A new state park location in Southeast Idaho was selected along the Snake River between Blackfoot and Firth. That project has been canceled. The master plan for Eagle Island was completed in 2006 and some initial work done, but progress was halted and the park today struggles to meet the ever-increasing recreational demands. And there hasn’t been a new state park established since the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes was designated in 2004.

Gov. Kempthorne realized that Idahoans love their state parks. In fact, more than 5 million people annually visit Idaho state parks. That is a considerable constituency. So the question is, who will pick up the baton and carry on Gov. Kempthorne’s “unfinished business”? It is going to take a governor with the same vision and persistence as Gov. Kempthorne. I am hopeful the candidates for governor and the Legislature will make support of the state parks part of their political discourse. While Gov. Kempthorne was cognizant of what the state parks meant to the people of Idaho, some of this year’s candidates don’t seem to have a clue.

Dennis McLane is the vice-president of the Friends of Idaho State Parks.

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