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Otter: Merrill’s management at Parks will be ‘sorely missed’

Gov. Butch Otter issued this statement on the impending retirement of state Parks Director Nancy Merrill:

“Besides being a great friend, Nancy has been a skilled and energetic director at Parks and Recreation. She brought enthusiasm, experience and a hard-nosed business approach to managing the agency that was badly needed and will be sorely missed.”

Merrill, 66, said she’s proud of her record at the department, and with her husband retiring in May, it seemed like the right time. “We’ve accomplished a lot, and I feel good about it,” she said. “We had some tough years.” She said of Idaho's state parks, “We have learned to kind of stand on our own, and that includes looking at our fees and the way that we do business, and that includes bringing in additional revenues to help sustain ourselves.” That focus will need to continue in the future, she said, including tapping corporate sponsorships and other sources of funding to help the park system stay solid. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

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 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.
  

Merrill Ripped For Wasting Toilet $$$

As lawmakers question state Parks Director Nancy Merrill this morning, 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 3rd Street boat launch in Coeur d'Alene. “$11,000 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”/Betsy Russell, SR. More here.

Question: Have you ever been to a public restroom with 'sweet-smelling' toilets?

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?

Hucks Poll: Merrill Wasted Money

  • Tuesday Poll: Mary Souza and the OpenCDA crowd may support the $11,000 expense incurred by the state Parks & Rec department to warn boaters about possible 3rd Street boat launch closure — but Hucks Nation doesn't. A supermajority — 46 of 157 respondents (68.15%) said the state agency shouldn't have spent the money for the mailing. 46 of 157 (29.3%) supported the action. 4 were undecided.
  • Today's Poll: How would you rate President Obama's State of the Union speech, in baseball terms?

Mary: P&R Director Deserves Thanks

Mary Souza, of OpenCDA.com, sees no problem with the Idaho Parks & Recreation Department spending $11,000 to warn boaters in 42 states that Coeur d'Alene has proposed to close the 3rd Street boat launch. In fact, the usually fiscally conservative Souza uses the expense in her latest newsletter to jab at her favorite pincushion, Lake City Development Corp. Then, she harangued state Sen. John Goedde, “who is cozy with City Hall,” for launching a “Senate inquisition” of P&R Director Nancy Merrill this week. “What, is he looking for heads to roll on this?” wonders Mary. Ultimately, Mary says that Merrill “deserves a thank you, not a grilling,” for sticking up for boaters.

Question: Does P&R Director Nancy Merrill deserve a 'thank you' or 'a grilling' for spending $11,000 to send out 36,000 letters to boaters in 42 states re: possible closure of the 3rd Street dock?

Merrill Ripped For Boat-Launch Letters

Idaho lawmakers called their state parks director on the carpet Monday over letters that were sent to 32,000 boaters about the possible closure of the 3rd Street boat launch in Coeur d’Alene. State Parks Director Nancy Merrill told the Senate Resources Committee she was just doing her job as required by state law: Standing up for boater access on state waters. But Coeur d’Alene city officials say the city always planned to replace the launch with another one just as good, if it removes the downtown launch as part of a big renovation of McEuen Field into a waterfront park - and that message got lost. “I appreciate that they are looking out for boater access - we are doing the same thing,” said Coeur d’Alene Mayor Sandy Bloem/Betsy Russell, Eye On Boise. More here(SR file photo: Kathy Plonka)

Question: Would you be more open to an alternative boat launch for the current 3rd Street one, if state funds were available to help build it?

Idaho criticized for roiling OHVers

OFF-ROADING — The supervisor of the Nez Perce National Forest has criticized the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, contending the state agency tried to rile up off-road vehicle riders over a proposed plan that could limit their access to the forest’s trails.

An e-mail exchange that’s emerged and reported by the Associated Press shows Supervisor Rick Brazell criticized a Nov. 3 letter that the state agency sent to off-highway vehicle riders encouraging them to comment on a proposed travel management plan.

Brazell moved to the Nez Perce/Clearwater national forests last year after earning a reputation on the Colville National Forest for bringing disparate groups together for compromises.

In his e-mail to Idaho Parks, Brazell questioned what he called “using a state database to get folks upset without giving the whole story.”

Parks director Nancy Merrill responded, saying the letter was to inform riders, not lead them to conclusions.

The Idaho Conservation League says it fears the correspondence may show Merrill’s agency favors one recreation group over others: Hikers, horseback riders, anglers and hunters concerned about wildlife habitat affected by trails.