January 29, 2013 in Idaho

Volunteers keep Idaho parks open, director tells lawmakers

Despite steep state funding cuts, none has closed
By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE – Idaho state parks are staying open thanks in part to thousands of volunteers, the state parks chief told lawmakers Monday.

The Idaho 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 which comes from entry and camping fees, RV registration and other user fees. 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, but Gov. Butch Otter has recommended just $1.35 million. 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 “passport” season passes 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 that last year at this time, parks passports 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.

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