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PARK USE SURGE: No more 'shoulder season' at state parks

“Our parks are not only nice, they are necessary as well, as we all sought the solace of the outdoors when the pandemic limited our work, travel and interactions.”
Credit: IDPR
Winter camping at City of Rocks State Park.

BOISE, Idaho — This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press.

Idaho’s state parks no longer have a “shoulder season” — people are wanting to use them all year round.

“People … still want to camp even though there’s a lot of snow on the ground, and we’re plowing snow to accommodate them,” state Parks Director Susan Buxton told state lawmakers.

It’s part of an upsurge in use at state parks that’s seen visitor numbers rise 29% over the past two years, with an average of 7.5 million visitors at state parks a year in 2020 and 2021.

That’s up from an average of 5.8 million a year from 2015 to 2019.

“The historic visitation since 2020 reinforces that our parks serve a vital function for the public,” Buxton told lawmakers during a recent budget hearing. “Our parks are not only nice, they are necessary as well, as we all sought the solace of the outdoors when the pandemic limited our work, travel and interactions.”

The sharply increased use of Idaho’s 30 state parks, all year round, has put pressure on the facilities and staff. Gov. Brad Little is proposing tapping $45 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act aid over the next four years for upgrades, including $20 million to be spent next year.

“With this funding we plan to add at least 250 new campsites, which is approximately a 12% increase,” Buxton told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Also set to be added are 25 new day-use areas, a 10% increase, and 150 upgraded boat slips and docks.

“The funds would also greatly help the department’s existing $75 million maintenance backlog,” she said, for everything from paving potholed roads to replacing and expanding restrooms.

Credit: IDPR
Winter campers at East Beach at Bear Lake State Park submitted this photo to the park in eastern Idaho on Feb. 10, 2022; the park posted it on its Facebook page.

All the federal aid funds would be used to “increase capacity … and also at the same time repair existing infrastructure,” Buxton said.

The budget, Buxton said, “represents an investment in the future, and provides an incomparable opportunity to restore, repair, upgrade, enhance and modernize Idaho’s parks and recreation facilities for generations to come.”

With the “ever-faster-growing demand we have from the public,” she said, “the need to make repairs and expand our capacity is more and more evident.”

JFAC is set to vote on the budget for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation on March 2.

Buxton reported that despite the record visitation, the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation has two fewer employees than it did in 2008, when it saw nearly half as many visitors. As a result, she’s requesting increased staffing next year, along with other budget requests. 

The department’s staffing currently includes the equivalent of 159 full-time positions, plus more than 300 seasonal employees each year and more than 500 volunteers. “The never-before-seen influx of visitation in our parks … is stretching our parks workforce tremendously,” she said. “Our staffing ratios certainly create some concern for safety and the quality of experience to our visitors and the world-class resources they are tasked to manage and maintain.”

It’s also getting harder to recruit and retain those workers, she said. “Seasonals can only work about five months a year,” Buxton said. “We’re seeing people wanting to camp all the time.”

As a result, she’s requesting nearly a dozen new parks staffers, including eight new park rangers; a quarter-million-dollar boost to pay in targeted raises aimed at key positions facing recruitment and retention issues; and a 13% increase in the budget for seasonal workers, including covering 27,000 hours of additional seasonal employee help at 23 parks and boosting pay.

Credit: IDPR
Winter campers at City of Rocks State Park.

A skilled parks and recreation manager, she said, “runs the parks, hires staff, provides customer services … and fills in everywhere needed, including fixing restrooms, water systems, sewer systems.” Recent salary surveys show pay for Idaho park managers, when compared to comparable positions with employers including the cities of Boise and Coeur d’Alene and Utah and Washington state parks, lags by 26%. Maintenance craftsmen make 30% less, said Buxton, who previously served as the state’s human resources director.

“We are conservatively looking at all options,” she said, and plan to cover both the staffing and pay increases from dedicated funds, rather than state general funds.

The department, which is largely funded by fees, grants and other dedicated funds, gets only 7% of its budget from state general tax funds.

Buxton is requesting a $400,000 increase in annual operating costs for state parks, also from dedicated funds. Water, sewer and garbage collection costs are up, she said, as are utility costs. Part of that is due to more frequent turnover of campsites, she noted, which ups the trash pickup and cleanup costs.

In addition to the $20 million boost from federal funds, two major projects, all or partially funded by grants, are included in the parks budget for next year: $7.4 million for a new 50-space campground at Eagle Island State Park; and $3 million to pave the entire 30-mile Ashton-Tetonia Rail Trail in eastern Idaho, plus add restrooms and camping facilities.

The department also is proposing to spend $720,000 to build housing for seasonal staff at Bruneau Dunes State Park and Lake Cascade State Park. “Most parks … are in remote locations in our state,” Buxton said. “They operate seven days a week including holidays. … Staff housing onsite is required,” to ensure public safety and smooth 24/7 operations as well as protection of the parks, she said.

The proposed budget, as recommended by the governor, also calls for spending $3.6 million in dedicated funds next year on replacement items, from computers to trail maintenance equipment, along with an array of smaller requests for everything from increased vendor contract fees to two additional vault toilets at Bear Lake State Park in eastern Idaho.

In total funds, including the $20 million boost to the parks budget next year from federal ARPA funds, the department’s proposed budget would rise by 57%. But in state general funds, it would be up just 4.9% to just under $3.7 million.

This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press, read more on IdahoPress.com.

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