BOISE - Idaho’s state parks are gearing up to try to pay their own way, state Parks Director Nancy Merrill told lawmakers Monday, as she pitched a parks budget for next year that calls for a $5 million cut in state funding.
“We have proposed that we begin the process of weaning ourselves from the general fund,” Merrill said. “This will not be easy, and it will be painful, but our board and our staff have agreed that it can be done.”
Merrill developed a new “business plan” for all the state’s parks, which she plans to place before the state Parks Board for approval Tuesday.
Among the ideas: Charging school groups that tour the Cataldo Mission; hiking most parks’ fees by 15 to 25 percent; raising moorage fees at Heyburn State Park by 30 percent this year; reopening a shooting range at Farragut State Park and converting a day-use area to overnight camping; aggressively marketing all parks to increase visitation; and closing two parks, Three Island Crossing near Glenns Ferry and Land of the Yankee Fork State Park in central Idaho, for the winter months to save money.
“There are some real outside-the-box ideas in general, as well as individual parks ideas,” Merrill said.
The plan also suggests following Washington’s move to add a $5 fee to vehicle registrations and then waiving park admission fees for in-state vehicles; doing that in Idaho could require a constitutional amendment, however.
The business plan estimates park visitation will increase by 5 percent a year for the next three years, despite fee increases, through “aggressive marketing and business opportunity development in the parks.”
Lawmakers weren’t immediately sold on the idea that Idaho’s parks can be self-supporting, with several noting that other states haven’t been able to accomplish that.
In fact, former Idaho state Parks Director Yvonne Ferrell, who headed Idaho’s park system for 15 years and was deputy director of Washington’s state parks for a decade before that, said she’s “never seen” a state park system that was self-sustaining financially, and she doesn’t think that’s even a wise goal.
“They tried it back on the east coast, and they only opened up for the summer because that’s when the people were there,” she said. “I feel as a taxpayer now and as a former director that our state should contribute to the health of these sites.” Otherwise, she said, priorities can become skewed toward “those things that produce a fee.”
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice-chairwoman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said the state should help fund parks - “if we can afford it.” With Idaho’s severe state budget crunch, she said, “My first priorities are taking care of the vulnerable populations, be they elderly, disabled, or students in the education system. I want to meet those other priorities first. I think most Idahoans should agree with that prioritization.”
Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “I believe that there will remain a role for state government to participate in state parks. As Idaho citizens, we sort of expect that - it’s part of our heritage, part of our tradition, part of our way of life.”
Deep state budget cuts in the last two years already have forced the parks department to look for “alternative management” of some parks, Merrill said. “We are very close today to an agreement with the county commissioners” for operation of now-closed Dworshak State Park in Clearwater County, Merrill said. She said she’s also exploring alternative management arrangements for Thousand Springs and Land of the Yankee Fork.
Part of Merrill’s plan for trimming state costs for parks involves tapping $2 million a year for up to five years from RV registration funds that otherwise would have gone to grants for capital projects to serve RV users. That’s about half the money the fee generates. Merrill said she’d use the money to operate parks that directly serve RV users; a citizen advisory committee for the RV account has unanimously approved the move.