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Shrinking Budget Means Higher Fees For Park Users

Terry Clark used to live near Farragut State Park years ago when the entry fee was $1. The park was like a second home.

Only a buck to go sledding in the winter. Only a buck to swim at the beach, where lifeguards kept an eye on the water.

Now it costs $3 to enter the park, and camping fees have doubled. No lifeguards patrol the beach.

When Clark took her son and friend on an overnight camping trip recently, she was dismayed to find that a tent site cost $12.

“I thought $12 was real excessive,” she said Thursday, as she and the kids put up their tents. She remembers when camping cost only $4 or $5 a night.

But, she added, “If they’re using those fees to put back into this park, then I guess it’s OK.”

Parks users can expect to pay more each year as the state’s costs exceed its recreation budget.

This summer, the state Parks and Recreation Department adopted new rules that would have parks run more like self-sufficient businesses, while preserving park resources.

Now, about 30 percent of park operations are supported by revenue from user fees.

“Parks tend to be a lower priority while budget dollars get tighter,” said Frank Boteler, an administrator with the parks department in Boise. “Meanwhile, recreation demands increase and fixed costs increase.”

Many campers don’t even notice the higher rates, especially those folks traveling from states such as Oregon and California, where state parks charge more for camping and extra for showers.

Surveys have shown that user fees are accepted when people think the service is worth it, especially when the fees go back into the same park or facility.

“I’m a guest here,” said Mark Boyll of Salem, Ore., explaining why he didn’t mind Farragut’s camping fees. “But in Oregon, I feel like I’m getting double-taxed.”

Statewide budget holdbacks for the last five years and the draining of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund have hurt state parks, Boteler said.

The lifeguard program was dropped statewide, Veterans Memorial State Park in Boise was handed over to the city, and other cuts were made. Seasonal wages are so low it’s hard to find good workers, managers said.

Entrance and camping fees went up statewide this year, hugging the upper limit of what managers think people will tolerate. While state officials boast that Idaho’s still a bargain compared to other states, Montana’s state parks only charge $5 to $9 for a campsite.

A reluctance to raise fees much higher has parks personnel brainstorming other ways to raise money.

The agency even sponsored a contest among employees for the best moneymaking idea for Idaho parks. Here are a few responses:

Rent out back-country yurts. A yurt (a round, canvass-covered structure) in Ponderosa State Park at Payette Lake has been tremendously popular with Nordic skiers.

Purchase used snowboards and rent them out at Bruneau Dunes State Park - the highest sand dunes west of the Mississippi - for sand surfing.

Construct a four-season water slide at Hells Gate State Park on the Snake River.

Sell ice at all parks.

Construct additional overnight camping docks along Coeur d’Alene Parkway and Heyburn State Park that offer electricity and water hookups for a fee.

This year the parks department started charging for overnight camping at the Coeur d’Alene Parkway’s Higgens Point docks: $8 for boats under 26 feet, and $11 for bigger boats. The docks have no utilities, but the site has picnic tables, barbecue grills and bathrooms.

Only 20 parties have used the docks overnight this summer, said parkway manager Randall Butt.

“Our nights of overnight moorage dropped,” he said. “Most people went to other areas. There’s a lot of county facilities at no cost.”

The parkway has other potential, managers believe.

One idea is a commercial dock, where vendors could lease space for watercraft rentals or other purposes on a short-term basis. Now the only commercial dock is the city of Coeur d’Alene’s at Independence Point.

In addition, Butt is hoping to attract large events, such as the proposed Coeur d’Alene Regatta.

The regatta, a collegiate rowing competition proposed for April, would use the Higgens Point boat launch as a staging area. Organizers would compensate the parks department for use of the facilities, and the department would collect a portion of profits made from concessions during the event.

At Farragut, manager Bryan Rowder is hesitant to propose any entrepreneurial ventures without seeing how it fits into the overall plan. A new park master plan is about two years away.

Charging overnight moorage at park dock facilities is a possibility, but logistically complex, he said.

“We don’t have slips,” he said. “Let’s say you paid 10 nights of boat moorage and you go out fishing. What if someone else is in your spot when you get back? What do you do about that?”

As the parks’ staff explores their options, new policies call for fee revenues to be dedicated to stewardship of park resources and providing public access.

The rules also make it clear that state will still be expected to invest in its park system.

That means selling off chunks of state parks and exploiting the natural resources aren’t among the suggestions.

“Our department doesn’t want to sell land for profit,” Boteler said.

Nor does the department want to drastically change the nature of the parks to turn a profit. While some states have developed golf course resorts and restaurants, that approach could meet with some resistance in Idaho.

“To expect it to be self-supporting and still be a state park, it won’t happen. It’ll turn into a commercial enterprise,” Rowder said. “There’s a point where you just sell it off. Let private industry make money off the land.”

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