BOISE – School groups might have to start paying to tour Cataldo Mission, some parks could close during winters, and the shooting range at Farragut State Park could be reopened under a plan to make Idaho’s state parks financially self-sufficient.
Other ideas contained in a new business plan expected to be presented to lawmakers today include: increasing most parks’ fees by 15 to 25 percent; raising moorage fees at Heyburn State Park by 30 percent this year; converting a day-use area at Farragut 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. Still, overall state parks funding would have to be cut by $5 million.
“There are some real outside-the-box ideas in general, as well as individual parks ideas,” said state Parks Director Nancy Merrill.
The plan also suggests following Washington’s move to add a $5 fee to vehicle registrations and then waive 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 paid for itself and doesn’t think it’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.”
With Idaho’s severe state budget crunch, state Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, 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.”