Bad news for the 47,097 non-Idahoans who camped at Priest Lake State Park last year: If you want to make a new reservation, you’ll have to fork over $48 per night for a site.
That’s twice as much as the $24 fee for residents.
And don’t think you can beat the system by heading to Farragut State Park instead.
It, too, is among a select group of popular state parks that saw fees for camping and entry double on June 10, as a result of a new state law.
That law, sponsored by Republican Rep. Doug Okuniewicz, of Hayden, required the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation to double fees at “no fewer” than five parks for camping and entry, with overlap allowed.
The bill didn’t, however, specify which parks would be affected.
That was the up to the state parks department, according to public information officer Craig Quintana. But Quintana said legislators had input in drafting the list.
“In discussions with lawmakers, they wanted it to be the five most popular parks with the highest percentage of out-of-state users for both daily (use) and camping,” he said.
For day use, the list was Bear Lake, Farragut, Hells Gate, Priest Lake and Round Lake state parks, where the $7 entry fee is now $14 for nonresidents.
Farragut, Priest Lake and Round Lake also made the list of $48 camp sites, as did Henrys Lake and Ponderosa state parks.
If that sounds like too much to spend to cross the border and recreate, well, that’s the point.
“We worked with the bill sponsor, Rep. Doug Okuniewicz, and others, on what they were seeking here,” Quintana said. “They wanted to see if there was a financial incentive to create some more space in Idaho parks for Idahoans.”
And creating space for Idahoans means discouraging visitors from outside the Gem State.
Quintana said increased fees weren’t the first idea for doing so.
“A lot of people wanted us to give preference to Idahoans over out-of-staters when people are making park reservations,” he said.
But doing so would have violated federal regulations against discrimination, Quintana said. And since “almost all” of Idaho’s parks get federal Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars, he said, the state couldn’t violate those rules.
Instead, Idaho lawmakers decided to take advantage of a provision the federal government does allow: charging residents of other states up to twice as much to use state parks.
Okuniewicz did not respond to a request for comment about the bill, but state Sen. Jim Woodward, of Sagle, said he voted for it to ensure everyone pays their fair share.
“An Idahoan pays (for the state parks system) through sales tax and income tax, and they pay the user fee,” Woodward said. “And an out-of-state user would only pay the user fee. To maintain the equity … it’s probably best to have the out-of-state fee a little bit higher than the in-state.”
The changes took effect last week. They come after the state already imposed a $3 surcharge statewide on its campsite fee for nonresidents. That hike will remain in effect at the rest of the state parks.
While it’s too early to know what effect the new increases will have, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be able to fully balance the numbers at the parks in question.
The more than 47,000 nonresidents camping at Priest Lake in 2020 vastly outnumbered the 21,429 Idahoans who reserved a site.
At Farragut, the imbalance was even more pronounced: 77,159 non-residents camped there, versus 29,705 resident campers.
Hells Gate (12,733 resident and 21,520 nonresident campers), Henrys Lake (9,918 resident and 18,373 nonresident campers) and Round Lake (5,896 resident and 9,562 nonresident campers) were also out of whack, according to Quintana.
And there’s no shortage of people waiting to book their reservations way ahead of time, often nine months in advance.
“If we could magically snap our fingers and double capacity, we would fill it,” Quintana said.
The popularity of the parks isn’t new, but Quintana said the pandemic drove interest in the state’s recreational opportunities, leading to an attendance record.
The 7.7 million people who visited Idaho’s state parks last year represented an increase of 1.2 million over the previous record. Of those visitors, 30% were from outside of Idaho.
Asked whether he worried Idaho’s fee increase would lead to retaliation from other states, Quintana said, “Everyone’s already doing it.”
He cited, for example, Washington’s $5 surcharge on camping fees for out-of-state visitors.
Quintana said people who booked a spot before June 10 will be “grandfathered in” at the lower price and “haven’t realized there are higher fees yet.”
“So the next go round is when people will really start to notice the fee hikes when they’re coming from out of state,” Quintana said. “That said, there’s a pretty fierce debate from some folks on social media right now. It has been welcomed by a good number of Idahoans. We’ve been getting a lot of ‘It’s about time’ from a lot of Idahoans.”
“But at the other end of the spectrum,” he said, “we’ve had a lot of traditional campers from out of state who say they might not come back because they object to the doubling of the price.”
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