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Idaho may turn to corporate sponsors to keep state parks open

Money could be saved on signs, uniforms, cars

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 Tuesday.

“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.

• North Face outdoor clothing company might donate ranger uniforms that could include its 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 increase slightly. Merrill said that’s largely because of anticipated revenues from higher park fees.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “If they’re tastefully done, as was described here, I’m fine with that. … Just so they’re not big banners with flashing neon lights.” Keogh said the types of things Merrill described “don’t take away from the outdoor experience.”

Merrill 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.”

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

That plan will be developed in the coming year, Merrill said, with a ranking system and public input into which parks should close first. That, she said, 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.

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