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State parks look to corporate sponsors as additional funding source

Idaho’s state parks system is looking for corporate sponsors for signs, brochures, group picnic shelters and the like, as part of its effort to make the parks system largely pay for itself, state Parks Director David Langhorst told lawmakers this morning. “We would hope to be able to acknowledge their donations on signage, printed materials and so forth,” Langhorst told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee during his budget presentation. “While this kind of activity isn’t prohibited in state code, it isn’t expressly allowed.” So at the suggestion of the Idaho Attorney General’s office, the parks department will be proposing legislation this year to specifically authorize such arrangements.

“We’ve got a goal for $20,000 the first year,” he said. Already, Airstream is working with the state to produce a 50th Anniversary Idaho State Parks-model trailer in the coming year; $500 from each sale would go to the department, and the trailer’s interior would be decorated in a theme tied to Idaho’s parks. “We’ve been trying to be creative,” Langhorst said. “There are many companies that really like parks, and they see some value in partnering with us.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

He pointed to precedents in public higher ed in Idaho, like Nike swooshes on college sports players’ uniforms and BSU’s Albertson Stadium and Taco Bell Arena. But Langhorst said the program would not include selling naming rights to Idaho’s 30 state parks. “The park names are pretty historic,” he said. He noted that in Montana, Subway has underwritten TV ads promoting state parks.

Idaho’s state Department of Parks and Recreation currently get just $3.5 million in state funds, about 6 percent of its budget.  Other funds come from fees, sales and charges; grants; a small slice of state gas taxes; and registration fees collected on boats, snowmobiles, motorbikes, ATVs, and RV's. In fiscal year 2008, the department was allocated nearly $18 million in state general funds.

State parks chief Nancy Merrill to retire, national search launched for replacement

Nancy Merrill, director of Idaho’s Department of Parks and Recreation, will retire in mid-July, and the state is launching a national search for her replacement. “We’re reaching out to every resource available,” said parks spokeswoman Jennifer Okerlund. Merrill has been the head of Idaho’s state park system since 2009.

State funding for parks in Idaho has dropped from $17.7 million in general funds in 2008 – the year before Merrill took over – to just $1.3 million this year, forcing the parks to tap other revenue sources, from RV licensing funds to new ventures including low-priced season park passports, selling firewood, renting paddleboards, canoes and sand-boards, marketing parks as venues for weddings and special events, adding partnerships and concessions, and adding camper cabins and other revenue-generating improvements.

“We’ve worked hard over the past few years to reinvent ourselves and change the way we do business to keep each of these special places open,” Merrill told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee in January. “Our greatest need is to keep and take care of what we now have. We have done so much with so little.” Lawmakers this year approved a $3.5 million budget for parks next year – a 160 percent increase – but that’s largely due to a one-time allocation for $1.6 million in specific replacement items and repairs at state parks. The total cost of running Idaho’s parks is more than $33 million; Gov. Butch Otter has led a move to wean the parks system from state general funds.

Merrill launched the sales of $10 season passes to all Idaho’s parks with state vehicle registrations, bringing in more than $1 million for parks in the first year of sales and also bringing more visibility and visitors. But at the same time, costs for basics like personnel, utilities and fuel at the parks rose enough to swallow up the extra money.

In a 2013 interview with “Outdoor Idaho” host Bruce Reichert, Merrill reflected on the future of Idaho's state parks, saying she hopes the state will have the foresight to acquire more park land for future generations; you can see that interview here.

Merrill is the former mayor of Eagle and the former president of the Association of Idaho Cities. She and her husband Galan have four children and 15 grandchildren. Jon Hanian, spokesman for Gov. Otter, said, “Nancy’s been one of our stars.”

Idaho state parks loaning gear to new campers

CAMPING – Idaho State Parks has partnered with The North Face to loan camping equipment at no charge to first-time campers through September.

The Explore Your Parks program is underway at two North Idaho state parks:

  • Hells Gate, (208) 799-5015.
  • Priest Lake, (208) 443-2200.

The offer’s also good at Lake Cascade State Park south of McCall.

New campers can check out tents, tarps, chairs, cooking equipment, lanterns and other gear – everything needed except sleeping bags and food.

The only costs are the normal campsite and reservation fees.

Participants are greeted by staff who will assist with campsite setup and offer tips on camping basics.

Often the state parks also have activities, such as staff-led nature hikes and family activities.

Idahoans snap up cheap parks passports

Idaho's sold more than $500,000 worth of its new $10 state parks passports in the first six months of the program, and state parks officials have high hopes the low-priced passes tied to Idahoans' vehicle registrations will take off big and help fund the park system. “The process is a little more complicated, but I think Idahoans have been so receptive,” said Jennifer Okerlund, Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation spokeswoman. “I think sales are on track.”

 The transition to the new system has been a little confusing for folks, however; you can't buy the new annual pass at the parks, only at the county Department of Motor Vehicles. For out-of-staters, there's still a $40 annual pass that can be purchased at the parks. But the real bargain is the $10 annual pass for Idaho residents. With state park entry fees at $5, there's a quick break-even for those who purchase it. As of the end of March – after six months of sales – 41,389 Idahoans had done so, including 6,839 in Kootenai County. They have the option of a one-year pass for $10, or a two-year pass for $20.

The complicated part: The pass is good for a year, but the year cycle must be the same as that of the registration for the vehicle for which it’s purchased. That means if your car registration is up in September and you buy a pass now, it’s only good until September; if you renew then, you’ll get a full year. There’s no pro-rating. Kootenai County Assessor Mike McDowell, whose office oversees the local DMV, said he’s advising those who want to head to parks now but have a registration that’ll expire mid-summer to just renew their car registration early. That way, they can get a full year out of their new parks pass; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Volunteers helping keep Idaho state parks open in lean times

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

See S-R reporter Betsy Russell's story on the hurdles Idaho parks are facing.

Idaho state parks start selling $10 annual pass, 3 months earlier than planned

Idaho's new $10 annual "Passport" to all 30 of its state parks and recreation areas will go on sale Monday, three months earlier than planned. The new Passport replaces the current $40 annual pass, and will be available at all Idaho county Department of Motor Vehicle offices, where, if they choose, Idahoans can add on the $10 pass when they register their vehicles each year.

"It's a bargain any way you look at it," said state Parks Director Nancy Merrill, who initiated the program as part of a big push to make Idaho's parks system self-sustaining, as its annual state funding has dropped from $6.2 million to $1.3 million. Out-of-state residents still will pay $40 for the passes; a single entry fee at an Idaho state park is $5.

Though the new Passport costs a quarter as much as its predecessor, Merrill expects far more Idahoans to purchase the pass, thanks to its low price and the convenience of getting it along with vehicle registration. She studied programs in other states, and developed Idaho's as a "true choice plan - it's not an opt-out." Idahoans only get the stickers if they choose to buy them. They also can be purchased at any time, not just when vehicle registration fees are due. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Idaho considers $10 voluntary pass to keep State Parks afloat

STATE PARKS — The Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation is launching a new program that allows vehicle owners to voluntarily pay a $10 fee when they register their cars that gives them access to 30 state parks in an effort to raise money for the embattled agency, the Associated Press reports.

Director Nancy Merrill hopes the idea, modeled after a successful program in Michigan, will alleviate financial pressure on her agency that has been mounting since Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter moved to wean it from taxpayer support two years ago.

Idaho Parks and Recreation currently offers a similar annual parks pass, but it now costs $40 and raises only $800,000 annually. Merrill is banking on the reduced price — and access to a much-broader audience through Idaho’s car registration program — to help bring in an additional $1.9 million annually.

“We’ve been going through a lot of troubles and strife these last few years, and we’re now an agency reinvented,” Merrill told the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday. “We’re seeking a dedicated funding source. It would move us toward a long-term sustainable process.”

Read on for more details from the AP.

Corporate sponsors could help keep Idaho state parks open

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. 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.

State Parks Eyes Corporate Sponsors

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. 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/Betsy Russell, Eye On Boise. More here.

Question: Would you mind if the state parks system tapped corporate sponsorships to keep state parks open?

Free ski/snowshoe day in Idaho state parks set for Jan. 8th

It’s the silver anniversary of Idaho’s free ski and snowshoe day at state parks and park-and-ski areas. On Saturday Jan. 8th, Nordic skiers and snowshoers will be able to use the parks and park-and-ski lots for free to access the trails, from Priest Lake to Island Park; it’s the 25th annual event. Entrance and ski trail fees will be waived that day for everyone, as will park-and-ski parking permit fees, and some parks will host special events ranging from clinics to welcome parties.

Among them: Farragut State Park will offer free Nordic lessons from 10 a.m. to noon (bring your own equipment, meet at the Visitor Center), along with free cookies, coffee and park access. Priest Lake State Park will offer free cross-country ski lessons, hot chocolate and coffee; Harriman State Park will have free lessons all day and free rentals while supplies last; and Ponderosa State Park will offer snowshoe lessons and tours, Nordic ski lessons and free equipment rentals from 11-2:30. Said state parks chief Nancy Merrill, “The goal of Free Ski/Snowshoe day in Idaho is to introduce newcomers to the wonderful terrain and winter recreation opportunities across the state.”

Park lovers help keep ‘em open

The Brother Speed motorcycle club is among volunteers stepping forward to help maintain Idaho state parks in the wake of deep budget cuts, reports AP reporter Simmi Aujla. The biker group is working to maintain Thousand Springs, a state park near Hagerman where it’s held its annual Memorial Day gathering for 35 years. “This week, the agency started charging fees at two Thousand Springs units that had been free to the public for decades,” Aujla reports. “The park’s rangers insist they will do everything they can to stay open for visitors who come to enjoy the region’s breathtaking gorges, canyons and rivers. Brother Speed is helping. Last month, nine bikers sporting black leather jackets adorned with the group’s logo, a grinning skull, planted 75 blazing maples in a corner of Thousand Springs. They worked alongside college students, a Mormon group and a square dancing club.”

Click below to read her full report.

Nancy Merrill named state parks director

Former Eagle Mayor Nancy Merrill has been named Idaho’s new state parks director, the state Board of Parks and Recreation announced today. “The Board selected Nancy Merrill from among some very qualified candidates and because of her abilities to work collaboratively with diverse groups of people, her genuine enthusiasm for Idaho’s recreational opportunities, and a political acumen with the people who govern this state,” said Steve Klatt, board chairman. “She will provide the potential benefits of a creative fresh outlook on the troubling aspects of agency budget reductions we are forced to live with.”

Merrill replaces former director Bob Meinen, who stepped down earlier this year amid health problems. You can read the full announcement from the parks department below by clicking “continue reading.”

All Idaho state parks to stay open this summer

Idaho’s state Department of Parks and Recreation has announced that all state parks will stay open through the summer season, despite budget cuts. “At a time when budgets are tight, our agency understands that families will want to turn to their state parks for affordable outdoor experiences,” said state parks Director Robert Meinen. “For that reason, IDPR is going to do everything it can to ensure that Idaho’s state parks are open and accessible to visitors this year.” Seasonal staff will be trimmed for park maintenance and operations, however. “The reductions to staff will mean re-evaluating maintenance and facility cleaning schedules in every state park,” Meinen said. “That in mind, we’re going to keep our parks open and continue to provide safe, clean recreational experiences.”

Meinen caused a flurry of concern during the legislative session when he speculated that some parks might have to close - including possibly Old Mission State Park at Cataldo. Idaho has 30 state parks and recreational trailways statewide. To reserve campsites, cabins or yurts for overnights at state parks, go to www.parksandrecreation.idaho.gov or call 1-888-9-CAMPID.