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Idaho credits volunteers for keeping state parks open

Nancy Merrill, director, Idaho State Department of Parks & Recreation (Betsy Russell)
Nancy Merrill, director, Idaho State Department of Parks & Recreation (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Idaho’s state parks are staying open thanks in part to thousands of volunteers, the state’s parks chief told lawmakers this morning.

The state Department of Parks and Recreation now gets only $1.3 million a year in state funding, down from $9.6 million in 2003. “We are very proud to say we’ve been able to keep all 30 of our state parks open,” state Parks Director Nancy Merrill told the Legislature’s joint budget committee in her annual budget pitch. “Much of this is due to our great volunteers.”

Volunteers gave the parks 86,000 hours of free work in the past year, Merrill said. Meanwhile, overnight occupancy at state parks increased by 2.69 percent, and revenue from all sources was up by 7.45 percent.

The total budget for the parks this year is $32.4 million; the vast majority of it comes from dedicated funds, including entry and camping fees, RV registration fees and the like; federal funds account for about $5 million of this year’s budget. “It has been a cumulative agency effort to do the best with what we have,” Merrill said.

For next year, the parks department is requesting $2.8 million in state funding, which would more than double the state funds and mark a 9.7 percent increase overall, but Gov. Butch Otter has recommended just $1.35 million, a 2 percent increase in state funds and overall a 2.7 percent increase. The difference is largely due to a request for $1.4 million in replacement items that Otter didn’t recommend funding.

Merrill said the new program to sell “Passports” to all state parks along with motor vehicle registration in Idaho has gotten off to a strong, though quiet, start. “Without much advertising we began selling those passports in October,” Merrill said. “We have sold $232,000 the first three months without advertising,” which means 18,400 passports have been sold.

Merrill said last year at this time, parks passports, which carry season-long admission to all state parks, had generated just $10,890; the passports previously cost $40 apiece instead of $10 and weren’t as widely available. Merrill said the current sales figures include both one- and two-year passports. The department is counting on the passports as a key future funding source for state parks.

Merrill outlined a major change that’s in the works for the registration system for 270,000 boats, snowmobiles, ATVs and other recreational vehicles in Idaho; it will include moving the system to the Idaho Transportation Department and standardizing it. That’ll mean nearly all those registrations will be handled through ITD in the future; 77 percent of people already handle them through their DMV, but 23 percent use vendors around the state. The change means the vendor system will end, except for non-resident snowmobile registrations.

Invasive species sticker sales for non-motorized boats and non-residents will move to Idaho Fish and Game, as Parks will no longer have a registration system. Legislation is in the works to make the changes, Merrill said, through a complex, 37-page bill sponsored by multiple state agencies, including Parks, ITD and Fish and Game.

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