Tighter state budgets have forced some cutbacks at state parks in Washington and Idaho, but all are open this Memorial Day weekend for the traditional start of summer camping season.
The parks should be full, but there will be fewer interpretive programs and rangers may seem harder to find at Washington parks, spokeswoman Virginia Painter said. Budget cuts meant layoffs for some midlevel managers, and some equipment is aging and not being replaced.
“We’re scraping by, but we’re open. Things are just thinner,” Painter said.
Visitors to Idaho’s 30 state parks may see fewer clean restrooms and less-frequent trash collection this summer. The Idaho Parks Department lost 25 full-time employees statewide and budget cuts reduced the number of seasonal workers the department can hire.
Employees will be enforcing rules, collecting fees and staffing registration desks rather than performing some general maintenance, said David White, Idaho’s north region manager.
Both states faced budget problems, but dealt with them in different ways.
Last year in Washington, the Legislature considered closing as many as 40 parks, Painter said. It cut the parks budget nearly in half, from $100 million to $52 million, but provided a new way for the public to support parks by asking motorists who license a car or renew their tabs if they want to donate $5 to parks.
About 40 percent do, Painter said. In April, the most recent month for figures, motorists contributed $1.1 million. That’s less than the Legislature’s estimate of $1.25 million, but the amounts fluctuate each month and may grow as the fee is better explained.
Washington also has a new law requiring many state employees to take 12 days off without pay, to ease budget problems. One of those days is July 12, but “nobody knows how the temporary layoffs are going to affect things,” Painter said.
In Idaho last year, the general fund allocation for parks was about $6.5 million, said Jennifer Wernex, communication manager for the state parks department. That was cut to $1.6 million this year, she said, so some 92 percent of the parks department’s $18.8 million budget comes from user fees.
Those fees are rising and will continue to go up, White said. The annual pass, which grants access to all Idaho state parks, rose from $25 to $35 this year and will rise to $40 in July. The cost for an annual pass for a second car goes from $5 to $15 on July 1, Wernex said.
Day passes also rose from $4 to $5 at the beginning of the year and visitors will see campsite fees rise by about $2, White said
In North Idaho, staff reductions translate to two fewer rangers. White said that means a ranger will only be available three days a week on the Coeur d’Alene Parkway, which runs along the lakeshore to Higgins Point, to patrol and to ensure compliance with regulations at the boat ramp. The other two days that employee will be at Farragut State Park in Athol.
The loss of a ranger at the Old Mission State Park may mean visitor center hours are limited, but White said he’s trying to balance that with seasonal employees, although their numbers are reduced, too. White’s seasonal staff was cut by one-third last summer; the level will be the same this summer.
The cuts make the parks department more reliant on volunteer assistance, Wernex said, and more people have stepped forward to help after learning of the cuts: “It’s been encouraging in these harder financial times, looking at the groundswell of support we have.”
Last summer’s tough economy seemed to boost attendance at Washington parks, Painter said, as families stayed closer to home. She expects the big three weekends – this one, July 4th and Labor Day – to fill up with reservations and the first-come campsites to disappear by noon on Fridays.