Underwriting provided by:
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?
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.
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?
You appeared before the legislative budget committee in 2013, seeking additional revenue. How were you treated?
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?
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
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?
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
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?
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?
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
Ten years out, what do you see as the future of state parks?
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?