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Martin Peterson

Martin Peterson was the state budget director in the 1980’s and has worked with various Idaho governors over the years on budgets and state parks. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in October of 2013.

What’s your take on the state of Idaho’s parks?
When I was state budget director, it became pretty obvious to me that I don’t think there was any state agency that had a more dedicated, hard working staff than the Department of Parks and Recreation; and I think that continues to this day. It was also one of the poorest funded agencies in state government, considering the breadth of operations that they were in charge of; and I think that still continues.

Would you say that support of state parks is a Republican or a Democrat issue?
I think state parks is something that transcends partisan lives. Certainly in my years of service, Governor Smylie aside, the two biggest champions of state park systems as governors were Governors Andrus and Kempthorne, both who interestingly then went on to become Secretaries of the Interior, which does a lot of that type of thing.

2009 budget meeting with four governors [Courtesy Jon Hanian]
2009 budget meeting with four governors [Courtesy Jon Hanian]

What are some of the issues or stumbling blocks that make the funding of state parks so difficult for governors?
When you have a downturn in the economy and revenues are tight, you try to focus your funding on what I would term critical agencies and critical programs – things like criminal justice systems, certain support programs in the Department of Health and Welfare, that type of thing. And, unfortunately, as creative an agency as Parks is, it really doesn’t rise to the top as being one of those critical agencies.

So I think all too often they have just been overlooked; and then in good times occasionally they have done well. I think under Governor Kempthorne, for example, they were able to deal with a number of their deferred maintenance issues, but it was a one time deal. It was not a continuing thing. The department is now working on trying to develop some dedicated funding sources coming into it, which I think is a good idea, but I don’t think it’s ever going to be enough to really meet all the needs of the department. And it’s not unlike the national park system. If you look at things the national park system has had to do to offset some of their budget problems, some of them make you squirm a little bit.

I think the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation has become much more entrepreneurial, which they needed to do. I think there have been some people who have felt that fees and entrepreneurial activities could largely replace state general fund support. While I think those thoughts are well intentioned, I don’t see that happening, because I just think what you’d have to do would be so massive – you’d have to take like, Ponderosa State Park, and put in condominiums and a golf course and that type of thing, which essentially destroys the park.

On the philosophical level, has funding of state parks been a tough sell for some governors and law makers?
Absolutely, especially when revenues are tight, it can be a real struggle. I think Governor Otter, when he became governor, initially the state was in pretty good shape revenue-wise; but the governor has a broad background in business and had a great deal of interest in expanding entrepreneurialism in state government.

I think the governor’s initial thoughts were that some point in time the Department of Parks and Recreation could possibly become fully self sufficient; but it’s one of those things, I think a lot of elected officials have made assumptions when they first took office, and then after they are on the ground for a while, they discover the real world may be a little different than what their original vision was, and I think that happened with Governor Otter.

I think one of the things that hit real close to home with Parks director Nancy Merrill has been Eagle Island State Park. They put together a business plan that depends to a great extent on their ability to sell gravel from Eagle Island to contractors; and the bottom kind of fell out of the construction industry, and as a result I think that model hasn’t worked as well as they might have hoped.

Marty Peterson with former governor Dirk Kempthorne
Marty Peterson with former governor Dirk Kempthorne

How important have communities and local chambers of commerce been to the viability of state parks?
I think they are very important. I think we’ve got examples all over the state. Certainly Eagle Island would be an example. Ponderosa and the city of McCall and even the city of Cascade would be an example. And certainly in Cascade itself we have a state park there which I think may be the most heavily used park in the system, on the reservoir up there. I guess we call it a lake now.

But there are smaller examples. One example that comes to mind is Winchester State Park. I can remember when Boise Cascade had their mill in Winchester, and it was the principal employer in Winchester. When they announced the decision to shut it down, all of a sudden people in Winchester were saying this town is going to die. And then the state got the idea to take the mill pond after Boise Cascade cleared all their equipment out, and establish a state park there; and that state park, given the population area, is pretty heavily utilized.

Dworshak is certainly the best current example that we have. The department had made a decision to close the park at Dworshak, and the uproar within the community was such that the department finally reversed its decision. I had to respect the department for making that decision in the first place – or the park’s board – because it’s a lot easier for park’s boards to make decisions on acquiring new property for parks than it is to shut them down. I’ve been through that. I went through that in the 80’s with the department and I know how excruciating it was for the board at that time.

Are you talking about Three Island Crossing State Park?
Yes. In the mid-80’s during the recession we had done a series of budget holdbacks on state agencies, and Parks was already badly underfunded, but we didn’t exempt them from one of the holdbacks, and they were just going to go across the board throughout the agency.

I sat down with the director of the department, and I said you just can’t do that. You’re already underfunded throughout the agency, throughout all of your parks, and to sit down now and make matters worse with all of them makes no sense, when, in fact, you could take care of your problem with the closure of one of the parks.

He said the parks board cannot do that, aren’t going to single one park out and suggest it be closed. I said, how about if I wrote you a letter as state budget director and named the park to shut down and suggest that you do it? He said, you would do that? I said absolutely.

Three Island Crossing
Three Island Crossing

And so I wrote him a letter, and there was method behind my madness. The state senator that covered that area was Wilson Steen, a very conservative state senator, a member of JFAC. And I put together a strategy that would close the park, knowing that Senator Steen would immediately get in touch with me; and I’d pull him in on a strategy that I had to offset some of the funding problems for the department through JFAC and get him to have the “sirloin row” crowd and JFAC support it, and we’d get it taken care of.

So they went ahead and put the cable across the gate down there and closed the park, and within 48 hours I had a phone call from Senator Steen, and he was extremely agitated with what had happened. I said, Senator, there is a solution to this. We’ve put together a solution that we’re going to work through the next session of the legislature, and I want to get your support on it, and we’ll get that park open again. He could not bring himself to support it the next legislative session, so the park stayed closed for a period of time.

What about new parks in Idaho; is that even a good idea?
I think if a significant parcel of property were identified that would be a great addition to the park system, I think it would be relatively easy to put together a lobbying effort to ultimately make that happen. That said, I think it would be unfortunate to see that happen, because any new parks that go into the system without the financial support attached to them are going to become a drain on all of the rest of the system. I think that is something that really is to the detriment of the department as a whole.

It seems to me there ought to be a line drawn in the sand that says we can’t establish any new parks or acquire any new land for existing parks without the assurance that we’re going to have the necessary funds available to do what needs to be done without robbing the rest of the system.

That has really not happened. Sometimes they acquire parks because you had some politicos in the area make a push; other times it’s a decision the parks board made, and I think a recent decision the parks board made that I found troubling was the decision to acquire the old mining town of Bayhorse and attach it to Land of the Yankee Fork state park.

I had been involved as the chief executive officer of the state Centennial Commission when the Land of the Yankee Fork was established, because it was established as the state centennial park. A few years ago they acquired the old mining town of Bayhorse, and I had been up there at one point when I was budget director, and there was some talk about acquiring it. And I had a home in an old mining town, Silver City, and I know a little bit about old mining towns, and unfortunately Bayhorse is full of problems. There is a lot of remediation that needs to be done. Buildings are falling down, and the department doesn’t have the resources to do what needs to be done. So, as a result, basically it’s my understanding what we have is a trailer park up there.

Bayhorse [Courtesy Chuck Cathcart]
Bayhorse [Courtesy Chuck Cathcart]

How close did we come to losing Cataldo as a park?
Cataldo sat up there and limped along back when the church still owned it – the church or the tribe, I don’t recall which. The state took it over. The building needed a lot of work done to it. It’s the oldest wooden structure in the state of Idaho, and it’s remarkable. It may also be the only large structure in Idaho made with wattle and daub walls, which I think makes it all the more incredible; but there has been a lot of support up in that area for the Mission.

The biggest drum beater for Old Mission State Park was the late Harry Magnusson. Harry could be very convincing, and Harry put together a group of people, and they worked on pursuing that, and Harry used his political chits, and they have that big new visitor center now. It’s a remarkable facility, and I think if the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation had not obtained that, I’m not sure it would still be standing.

Glade Creek, where Lewis & Clark once camped, almost didn’t become a state park. What’s the back story on that?
During the state Centennial I tried to talk Plum Creek Timber, which owned the site of Glade Creek, into selling it to the state. The Centennial Commission would have provided the funding, and the Parks Department could have taken it under its umbrella. Plum Creek had absolutely no interest in doing it.

So after the centennial, I was off doing other things, and I got a phone call one day from a guy that I had worked with on the Plum Creek effort. He said you should be aware that Plum Creek is trying to log off that section.

The Idaho Humanities Council later that week was having their first ever Boise Dinner for the Humanities, bringing in a national speaker, and the speaker was Stephen Ambrose. So I went to Rick Ardinger, the executive director of the Humanities Council, and I said I’d like to have a meeting with Ambrose while he’s in Boise.  In the meantime, I had gotten curious as to who was the lobbyist for Plum Creek and found out the individual was a friend of mine. I called him up, and I said, what would you think if it turned out that one of your clients owned one of the last pristine Lewis and Clark camp sites, and your client is getting ready to log off that camp site? What would be your reaction to that? And he said, you’re kidding; and I said, no, I’m not kidding.

And so I said, we’re having this breakfast with Ambrose; will you come to the breakfast? And so he came, and so I set the stage. I said, do you know anything about a camp called Glade Creek camp? And Ambrose said, 'three different summers I brought my family out, and we camped there. It’s not only historically big, but it’s big with my family.' And I told him what was going on, and his response was, 'I’ve only been famous for two years and I don’t know quite how that works, but you tell me how I can be of some use.'

So the lobbyist for Plum Creek drafted a letter for Ambrose to send to Plum Creek, and I was one of the founding incorporators of the Idaho Heritage Trust; and I went to the Trust, and I said, we’ve got a grand opportunity here. If you guys can do a fundraiser and obtain the money if we get Plum Creek to sell it, you guys can buy Glade Creek Camp, and then you can figure out what is going to happen to it.

Glade Creek
Glade Creek

The thing went like clockwork. We had a gorgeous fall day, not unlike today. A group of us gathered up on Lolo pass at the camp for the signing over of the deed. Members of the Nez Perce tribe, Governor Batt, the Lieutenant Governor of Montana. Steve Ambrose showed up wearing full Nez Perce Indian regalia, including a white leather Nez Perce Indian jacket and pants, and we had the ceremony.

Anyway, the site got saved, the Forest Service put in an interpretive trail going into it. It’s a great example of how a group of people, including the Parks Department, were able to come together and really save one of the great treasures in Idaho, and I suspect that will happen again.

It does seem like the Parks Department is working hard to become more entrepreneurial.
I think they clearly are. I think the current leadership of the department of parks and recreation really is making the best effort it can on being entrepreneurial and trying to identify new funding streams. And that has happened on previous administrations as well.

A good example of that is the network of cross-country ski areas that we have on state Parks lands, and the fact that if you have an ATV or snow machine and you register it, you both license it with the state and you pay a fee that goes to the state Department of Parks and Recreation to take care of things like cross country ski tracks, restroom facilities for ATV-ers, that kind of thing.

I think there is a fair amount of that going on, and I suspect you are going to see more of it. And there is some wiggle room with the department in terms of what it charges for the use of its facilities because it is one of the great bargains.

I have always viewed its number one customer base is Joe Lunch bucket. Joe Lunch bucket has a 15 year old camper and a wife and three kids, and they can’t afford to go to Sun Valley or to San Francisco or whatever, and you load the kids in the camper and you go to the nearest state park. And you’re away from home, and the entire family has a great experience.

I think that’s one of the great reasons for having a park system, and I think you are going to find in the future there’s going to be an even greater usage. Idaho economically isn’t in very good shape. Our wage earners don’t earn much compared to the national average, and they’ve got to look for bargains. And boy, what better bargain than having that state park system out there. And sure, there is probably some room there to add additional types of fees, crank them up, but I think the other thing the department is cognizant of and needs to be cognizant of is you don’t want to get it up to the point that all of a sudden your biggest use constituency can’t afford to go there anymore.

Is there one thing the average voter doesn’t understand about state parks?
The biggest thing the average voter doesn’t understand is that the department gets by on a shoestring budget, but you’ve got a lot of deferred maintenance out there. They do the best they can, and the system looks pretty doggone good, by and large, but you don’t see those hidden behind-the-scenes things that cause problems that really need to be addressed.

I think if the public were more cognizant of those things, they would probably be putting more pressure on legislators and others to be of greater support for the system.

What do you see ten years down the road for state parks?
I think state parks will become increasingly important as time goes by. The population of the state is going to continue to grow. I don’t see a quick fix for the Idaho economy and for the wage structure in Idaho, so I think you are going to continue to have people looking for the best bang for the buck for their recreational dollars, for their vacation dollars, and I think as the public becomes more and more aware of the phenomenal things we have out there – through things like the passport program that the Parks Department has set up – I see nothing but growth in the use of the park system; and I think that will lead it to becoming of greater and greater importance.