Idaho state parks want ‘tasteful’ corporate sponsorships

TUESDAY, FEB. 1, 2011, 8:19 A.M.

Idaho state parks Director Nancy Merrill tells lawmakers how parks are coping with deep budget cuts, during her budget presentation on Tuesday. (Betsy Russell)
Idaho state parks Director Nancy Merrill tells lawmakers how parks are coping with deep budget cuts, during her budget presentation on Tuesday. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Idaho’s cash-strapped state parks system will be looking to “tasteful” corporate sponsorships to try to help keep the state’s 30 parks open in the coming year, state parks chief Nancy Merrill told lawmakers this morning.

“We do not want to over-commercialize our state parks,” Merrill said, saying there will be no “Pepsi Cola state park in northern Idaho.”

She gave examples of what she has in mind: In California, Coca-Cola is funding interpretive signs that include just a small corporate logo at the bottom. The North Face outdoor clothing company might donate ranger uniforms that could include their logo. Subaru might donate vehicles for use in parks. Juicy Juice might sponsor a children’s playground. Odwalla juice might pay for tree-planting.

“We’re not interested in broadcasting huge commercial ventures out there,” Merrill said. “What we are interested in is partnerships that will help sustain us … that fit Idaho.”

Lawmakers were mostly approving of the move; state funding for Idaho’s parks system dropped 77 percent in the past year, from $6 million to $1.4 million. Gov. Butch Otter’s budget proposal for next year calls for another 4.1 percent cut in state funding, though the overall budget would rise slightly; Merrill said that’s largely because of anticipated revenues from higher park fees.

She said she’ll be taking proposed guidelines for corporate sponsorships to the state parks board next week, and if the board approves, “We will move quickly to engage companies,” she said.

In addition to corporate sponsorships, Merrill said the department is looking at higher fees and various marketing and business strategies to fund its operations. If those strategies don’t work, she said, “We have to have a Plan B, which includes park closure, park restructuring.”

“We’ll devise a ranking system” and appeal to the public to “tell us which parks need to be closed,” she said. That would be “most distasteful, the thing that we least want to do.” But shrinking funding and shrinking staff will leave no option if new, sustainable funding sources aren’t identified, she said. “Today is the new norm and we are adjusting, and all we can do is all we can do.”

In the past year, three parks were targeted for closure - Dworshak, Thousand Springs and Yankee Fork - but instead were kept open with the help of volunteers and increased fees, Merrill said. “This is definitely a pay-to-play system.”

The 30 state parks are now operated with just 84.5 full-time employees, plus up to 225 seasonal workers and volunteers, Merrill said. They received 4.4 million visitors last year, an 8 percent increase. She said she figures that means the each of the roughly 85 full-time employees were responsible “for around 54,000 people.”

To cope with its 77 percent reduction in state funding, Merrill said her agency used cash reserves for $1.1 million, reduced its work force by 15 percent and took $2 million from the RV registration fund, which Merrill said is “a short-term fix.” She said, “We realize we have three to five years in which we have to wean ourselves off using that fund. … If we don’t have a stable funding source when we pull that Band-Aid off, I think we’re going to bleed.”

As lawmakers questioned Merrill during her budget presentation, Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said she didn’t see anything in the state parks mission about advocacy and questioned why the department spent $11,000 to send letters to 32,000 registered boaters about the possible closure of the Third Street boat launch in Coeur d’Alene.

“Eleven thousand dollars could buy an SST, a ‘sweet-smelling toilet’ - I remember that number,” Jaquet said. “It just seems like $11,000 you could have used in a different way.”

Merrill said the $11,000 came from “dedicated Coast Guard funds” that “support public outreach and making sure people are aware when there’s lost access.” She said the department doesn’t advocate but tried to inform boaters about that issue and trail users about another in the Nez Perce Forest.

“We have taken a position, and our board has directed us to make sure that our users are aware of what is going on on the trails that they recreate and the boating that they access,” Merrill said. “That $11,000 is actually part of our funding source for public outreach and for communication.”

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