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Bill Loftus wrote “Idaho State Parks Guidebook” in 1989 as a reporter for the Lewiston Morning Tribune. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert at Heyburn State Park in the summer of 2013.
What was it like traveling with your children and visiting each Idaho park?
We spent an afternoon at Round Lake, a tiny little park, beautiful spot. We were at Ponderosa State Park in the winter, during the winter carnival; the kids saw an igloo there. We went to Three Island Crossing State Park. I remember sitting there after dark watching the satellites go across the sky, and it was kind of a magic moment to be with little kids experiencing the outdoors.
And here at Heyburn State Park, our youngest was 4, and we had this great hike on this trail, the Indian Cliffs Trail, and I think that experience really influenced that life. Now our youngest will celebrate 30 in Africa as a Peace Corp. volunteer and is an adventurer in the world. I think really the state parks helped shape that outlook on life and that willingness to have adventures.
Bill Loftus' son at Priest Lake State Park
Park managers like to talk about the importance of making memories at a state park.
The parks have come a long way in the 30 years I’ve paid much attention to them, in offering the camping cabins, and I’ve spent nights in yurts in a number of different parks, and they are different experiences for kids.
The memories that individual families and kids create in the state parks are maybe on the individual level, but the parks themselves represent our collective memories.
Were there any surprises that you can remember as you traveled the state?
Winchester Lake State Park is an old mill site. The lake is a logging pond, and you can go there, and you can see the big Ponderosas on the shoreline and enjoy the lake and not have a clue why it was originally created.
What about Heyburn State Park, where we are now? What if this had become a national park?
And it’s the oldest state park in the northwest, and to me that’s a testament to how some things happen for a reason. And Heyburn is a terrific state park in my book. In fact, I think it’s better as a state park than a national park. In fact, I’d argue there are some advantages to having it under state control because the bureaucracy is smaller, it’s more responsive to the local people and to the people in Idaho in general; and that’s not a knock on the national park service. It’s a great organization; and it’s not a knock on the U.S. forest service. It’s just the reality. I think these parks offer a different resource than federal lands can.
If you look at the politics of Yellowstone as a national park, the managers there are in some respects handcuffed to a land ethic where it says, we don’t take an active role in it. I think wilderness is wonderful, but I also think there is a place for us to look at landscape dynamics and understand how the environment works; and Heyburn is a great example of that, as far as I’m concerned. We’ve fought forest fires for so many years that we’ve taken fire out of the system; but the park staff here has the opportunity to restore some of these great forests that existed before we had these policies. Heyburn is a place where you can go and see Ponderosa Pine stands being restored through the use of fire, and even cutting trees here, and that couldn’t happen in a national park.
If you think about Ponderosa State Park near McCall, those magnificent old trees down there survived and are protected because they are in a state park. So that’s an example of having the opportunity to see an environment that doesn’t exist in many places. If you go to Massacre Rocks you can get a sense of how the pioneers must have felt coming down to the Snake River, and the travails of trying to find their way through that rim rock.
I think about Hells Gate State Park and Dworshak State Park; they were both created essentially by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, to offset some of the problems that dam building creates; and so those are recreation-intensive parks, beautiful settings, but it’s a federal responsibility.
At the turn of the century, parks were favored by fairly well-to-do people. These days it seems like there’s a different clientele that have taken parks as their own.
What do you say to those who question why any state money should go towards someone’s recreational activities?
In a state with so much federal land, it seems that state parks have had to struggle just to survive.
I’ve been really impressed with how the state park system has expanded in recent decades. There are a lot of new parks out there, but in the long run we’re going to be judged as a state by how we treat the whole system. I’m thinking of Old Mission State Park; that is the oldest building in Idaho, and it’s a state park, readily accessible, still a church where the Coeur d’Alene tribe goes to worship every year, and here it is in the public domain, under the care of the state as a whole. And I think that Old Mission tells us that we have a responsibility to take care of these places, and I guess that makes me optimistic about the future for the parks.
Of course, it seems to take a lot of volunteers to keep these parks functioning.