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Bill Loftus

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?
It was really fun, and our kids were small – 4 and 6 – so we had lots of great experiences with them.  The parks are so diverse; they are in so many different environments and represent so many different things about Idaho.

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
Bill Loftus' son at Priest Lake State Park

Park managers like to talk about the importance of making memories at a state park.
I think that’s really true. If you spend any time in Idaho state parks, you do see a lot of families there and a lot of young kids. The state parks in Idaho are community efforts in a way; they’re familiar, they’re friendly; the Idaho Parks and Recreation Department staff is really well trained, very friendly, very customer service oriented. It’s a comfortable place to go, people have a good time. It’s not like Idaho wilderness at large, where you really are exposed to a lot of the raw forces of nature.

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?
I think one of the surprises was Bruneau Dunes Park, and just the discovery of a place that I wouldn’t have imagined existed in Idaho. There, one of the attractions for folks is going out night hunting for scorpions. Most people wouldn’t think that would be a big thing in a state park; but it also has a great observatory.

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?
It always amuses me to think about Senator Weldon Heyburn; what he wanted here was a national park, because a national park meant business; it meant money; and it meant tourism. But he didn’t have enough friends in Congress to make that happen; but they stuck him with a state park, in a way.

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.

Bill Loftus
Bill Loftus

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.
The working people I think have also always enjoyed the chance to go some place and enjoy life; maybe now we’re seeing more families in state parks because it’s an affordable way to escape and to enjoy themselves; and the parks are catering to them; but it’s also a way for people to get out, camp in a place where they know they have a certain amount of ease.

What do you say to those who question why any state money should go towards someone’s recreational activities?
I think this idea of ‘pay to play’ is playing out in the state parks, because we buy our annual passes to have free access to the parks. Of course, we’re paying for that year-round access or we can pay by the piece, each time we come in and out the gate. Personally, I would prefer that the state pick up more of the tab for that, but people are willing to pay it, but they’re not willing to pay for it entirely.

In a state with so much federal land, it seems that state parks have had to struggle just to survive.
State parks do I think struggle in a lot of ways. Idaho is not a state to lavish a lot of funding on its departments; it still has a pretty sound set of conservative values; and that means that we do more with less than a lot of other states. I think the parks have had their challenges in the last decade, because, when we went through our economic troubles, the parks went through them, too, but I think the Parks Department has done a pretty good job of maintaining and keeping things open and accessible to the public.

Cataldo Mission [Courtesy Jay Krajic]
Cataldo Mission

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.
People love the parks; they turn out; they volunteer; they don’t expect anything in return except to see the parks continue, to be accessible to the public, to meet the needs of their families, and to get kids acquainted with nature. What more can you want than that?