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Nancy Merrill

Nancy Merrill is the director of the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in October of 2013.

The budget for state parks has been squeezed in recent years. What is the department doing to raise more money for parks?
We’ve had to change our whole philosophy; instead of just being a totally service oriented agency, taking care of the resources, we’ve really had to focus on how we can generate revenue to stay alive and keep these parks open for all Idahoans.

So one of the ideas we have floated is our new Idaho State Parks passport. Before the passport, we had a $40 annual pass. We dropped those passes down to $10. That would allow more people to purchase them at the time they register their cars. This has been really successful. We’re in our first year, and to date we have done over a million dollars worth of sales. So while we haven’t reached the target, we think in another year we will reach that target.

Nancy Merrill
Nancy Merrill

This is new money; we’ve also increased our fees and along with our fee increases, we’ve actually increased our overall revenue of new money by $2.9 million dollars. This will have a great impact on how we can keep these parks open. 

What would constitute success, in your estimation?
Success will be when we have enough staff in our parks to where we’re not wearing people out, and when we have enough money to fund our deferred maintenance, so that our projects that need to be repaired can be repaired, and we can really just enjoy taking care of our customers and our natural resources.

You appeared before the legislative budget committee in 2013, seeking additional revenue. How were you treated?
The one thing that is very clear to me is that our lawmakers understand how important parks are to Idahoans. We saw that when we were on the edge of nearly closing some of our parks. Parks not only impact people, but they impact the economic development in communities; we were seeing millions of dollars placed in sales tax from the sales of pop or beer or gas or equipment from people who are recreating, and they are spending those dollars in those communities; and even though we’ve been pinched, we do feel their support and they are looking at efforts and ways to help us out.

Some folks believe that no state money should go towards parks, that folks should pay to play. Can you make the case that state parks should be funded with public money?
State parks are a service organization. They’re an agency that serves the public. We take care of the land and the natural resources. We were never meant to be a money maker as far as the business type goes. We’re very much the same as transportation or our schools. We provide a service; and so tax payer dollars that go into state parks are just a fraction of what it takes to run a park.

That’s why we have the user fees, and we’ve raised our fees to just about max. In our campgrounds we’ve taken the adage of looking at the premier sites like a hotel or motel does. Those cost a little bit more; if you have more services, or they’re in a special location, you pay a little more for that. If you just want to go group-camp and put a tent out and bring the boy scouts or cub scouts to do that, those are less. So we have all kinds of price ranges for everyone; and so everyone should feel that they are welcome there. Plus, our day use now is either $5 at the gate or $10 if you have an annual pass. It’s pretty affordable.

Ground breaking for new Eagle Island bridge
Ground breaking for new Eagle Island bridge

Our parks are divided into three areas, if you will. We have the cultural/historic, and we have the recreation, and we have the natural parks. Harriman State Park, for example, that is both partly historic as well as a nature reserve, will never have the camping fees because we don’t offer camping in those areas; so they’ll never be able to provide enough money to self-sustain that park. Farragut State Park up north has a lot of camp grounds and a lot of opportunities to charge fees and to be self sustaining.

Some of our other partnerships are with the Army Corp of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, of which we have some cost shares that help sustain those. If we’re looking at self sustaining, we probably will never be self sustaining completely. I think we’re going to be able to support ourselves in a manner that we can, but I think we’re always going to need a little help.

What don’t people understand about their state parks?
I don’t think that some folks realize how close these parks are to their homes, and how available they are for them to actually visit. Sometimes people don’t realize a state park is right in the heart of a community, and they are welcome, and they could come and spend a lot of quality time there.

The other thing I don’t think they realize is the diversity in the parks. You could go down to Bruneau Dunes Park and sled all day or stay and watch the stars at night; or come to Eagle Island State Park and have a picnic here and play in the lake; or go up to Lucky Peak State Park.

Civil War reenactors at Eagle Island State Park  [Courtesy Tim Tower]
Civil War reenactors at Eagle Island State Park

They are so diverse. If a family really wanted to have an adventure, they could visit all 30 state parks and really have a great adventure. For example, Bruneau is one of those parks that, in the heat of the summer, you don’t have a huge visitation, but towards the fall, people love to go there. The dunes are a little cooler, and the nights are a little clearer, and it’s a beautiful park. If you’ve never been to Bruneau Sand Dunes you need to have that experience. They have a big fishing derby, and there are all kinds of places to ride, and it’s just one of those little secrets that a lot of people haven’t found yet.

That observatory -- to spend an evening on a really dark night with the stars up there, and to hear Otto talk about the stars and the stellar constellations is amazing. It’s an experience we all should take advantage of, and especially if you’ve got grandkids; you need to take them out to see that.

What is the connection between local communities and state parks?
When we were faced with closing Three Island Crossing or Thousand Springs, the economic development people came out, and their business leaders came out, and the people came out and said, this means a lot to us; and even though there wasn’t a huge visitation there, it meant a lot to that community.

I just had a little store call the Governor’s office recently and say, because there’s nobody down in a campground where we’d lost some power, it was hurting his fudge business. So it has impact even on the tiniest level to the business people within a community.

How do you know people like the services they receive in Idaho’s state parks?
Every day I get letters from people who absolutely are in love with whatever park they have been to. I just got one from Ponderosa State Park, from a group of people In RV’s who had been up and hadn’t been there before, and they just had nothing but nice things to say.

The most important thing that they are telling me is the service they receive from the staff, and somebody has gone out of their way to make someone else’s day; it’s an experience that they will never forget. We had a ranger that had a gentleman who was wheelchair bound, and he wanted to go do some sightseeing, so he helped him get in the truck and took him around sightseeing. Going the extra mile.

Runners at Bruneau Dunes State Park [Courtesy Tim Tower]
Runners at Bruneau Dunes State Park

Ten years out,  what do you see as the future of state parks?
What I would like to see, and what I think I might see are two different things. I would love to see us be able to acquire more land, protect the land for our future and for the legacy of our future generations. I think as development occurs across Idaho, if we don’t protect and preserve and conserve some of this land out here that is available now, we’ll never have another chance to do that.

So I would hope that we are foresighted enough that we will go out and try to acquire some more land, even if we can’t develop it right now. But in the meantime, I think that we have a can-do attitude in Idaho state parks, and that has been evident as we’ve had to shift our gears and turn our ship into making revenue and keeping our parks alive. Our staff has come up with some incredible ideas, and they are dedicated, and so I can see that our state parks are going to continue on the same path they are today. You are going to see beautiful parks, well taken care of, with perfect staff.

Are any parks going to close?
Not if I have anything to say about it. We’re going to do the best that we can to keep them open, and we’re going to strive to do so.