Riverside State Park is looking for a new head ranger to manage a treasure of public land along the Spokane River and the booming visitation and an uncertain funding that goes with it.
Rene Wiley, who worked 18 years for Washington State Parks, ended her 12-year stint as Riverside’s manager today. She said she’s taking a job in the environmental section of Avista Corp.
“When I first came here, the rangers would joke that Riverside would some day become Spokane’s Central Park,” recalled Wiley, 44. “We laughed then, but it’s coming true.”
The 10,000-acre park has become virtually surrounded by development, she said. “The Park is certainly a selling point for real estate.”
Riverside includes the main park on both sides of the Spokane river, including the Bowl and Pitcher day-use and campground area. It also includes the 37-mile Centennial Trail, Little Spokane River Natural Area, off-road vehicle park and the Spokane House interpretive area, where the oldest standing cabin in Spokane County is a relic of the fur trade.
Two years ago, Riverside also took over management of Nine Mile Resort.
“Attendance at the park has skyrocketed in the time I’ve been here,” Wiley said. “Twelve years ago, we had about 80,000 visitors. Last year, we topped 3 million.”
For comparison, Yellowstone National Park attracts 3 million to 3.1 million visitors a year.
The big boom in visitation began about six years ago as development on the north side of the river filled in areas such as Suncrest and Five Mile.
On the other hand, the park’s staff — 10 rangers, 1 full-time maintenance specialist, 1 office staffer — has not increased in the past eight years.
The park staff pulls through with “many positive relationships with community groups,” Wiley said.
“People, agencies and corporations are becoming involved, not just for the park, but for the value of the river corridor.”
Hiking enthusiasts working for the park foundation obtained a $20,000 grant from Wal-Mart to improve the park’s 65-mile system of dirt trails. The work might start next spring after permits are obtained to move dirt while avoiding the park’s many archeological sites.
Higher fuel prices and the downturn in the economy also has increased visitation, Wiley said.
“We’re meeting a lot of people who’ve lived here all their lives and are making their first visits to the park,” she said.
“It’s noticeable, though, that there’s more negativism. When we contact people to educate them on park rules, tempers are short.
“We’re getting different kinds of users. With so many pressures, people want to come to the park and relax and they don’t want to hear about rules.”
Riverside’s share of the ailing state budget won’t be revealed until the end of July.
Interviews for the new park manager will be conducted in July, with a hire expected around the end of August, she said.
“It’s hard leaving Parks,” she added. “But I’ll look forward to getting a chance to recreate in Riverside and enjoying it, rather than looking out for violations.”