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State parks chief Nancy Merrill to retire, national search launched for replacement

Nancy Merrill, director of Idaho’s Department of Parks and Recreation, will retire in mid-July, and the state is launching a national search for her replacement. “We’re reaching out to every resource available,” said parks spokeswoman Jennifer Okerlund. Merrill has been the head of Idaho’s state park system since 2009.

State funding for parks in Idaho has dropped from $17.7 million in general funds in 2008 – the year before Merrill took over – to just $1.3 million this year, forcing the parks to tap other revenue sources, from RV licensing funds to new ventures including low-priced season park passports, selling firewood, renting paddleboards, canoes and sand-boards, marketing parks as venues for weddings and special events, adding partnerships and concessions, and adding camper cabins and other revenue-generating improvements.

“We’ve worked hard over the past few years to reinvent ourselves and change the way we do business to keep each of these special places open,” Merrill told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee in January. “Our greatest need is to keep and take care of what we now have. We have done so much with so little.” Lawmakers this year approved a $3.5 million budget for parks next year – a 160 percent increase – but that’s largely due to a one-time allocation for $1.6 million in specific replacement items and repairs at state parks. The total cost of running Idaho’s parks is more than $33 million; Gov. Butch Otter has led a move to wean the parks system from state general funds.

Merrill launched the sales of $10 season passes to all Idaho’s parks with state vehicle registrations, bringing in more than $1 million for parks in the first year of sales and also bringing more visibility and visitors. But at the same time, costs for basics like personnel, utilities and fuel at the parks rose enough to swallow up the extra money.

In a 2013 interview with “Outdoor Idaho” host Bruce Reichert, Merrill reflected on the future of Idaho's state parks, saying she hopes the state will have the foresight to acquire more park land for future generations; you can see that interview here.

Merrill is the former mayor of Eagle and the former president of the Association of Idaho Cities. She and her husband Galan have four children and 15 grandchildren. Jon Hanian, spokesman for Gov. Otter, said, “Nancy’s been one of our stars.”


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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