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OPINION - Free state parks

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) I visited two state parks this weekend. During a weekend trip to the Apostle Islands, I walked the beach at Big Bay State Park on Madeline Island. And during my drive home I hiked to the falls at Copper Falls State Park near Mellen. I paid $7 to enter both parks. That's wrong. Entry to our state parks should be free.

My first objection to paying isn't that I'm cheap -- it's philosophical. Parks are public land, held by the state in public trust. If you live in Wisconsin, that land belongs to you. You shouldn't have to pay to use it. The second is that facilities vary widely from one state park to the next. Big Bay has very few facilities; Copper Falls has many marked trails with stone stairways, boardwalks and dozens of structures. Under the current system, some parks are "worth" paying a day-pass fee, others aren't.

The idea of free state parks isn't unusual. 10 states already allow free use of their parks, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Tennessee. Another 12 states allow free entry, but charge to use certain facilities like beaches or camp sites. Three-fourths of all National Parks are free. County parks are free.

In Wisconsin, free entry to state parks isn't a bridge too far. Day passes cover only one-fifth of the state parks operating budget. When other user fees are added, the amount rises to one-third. Wisconsin's parks cost about $54-million to operate. Allowing everyone in for free would cost about $7-million. Here's my proposal: Light use of the state parks -- day visits, hiking, swimming should be free. Heavy use -- camping, horseback riding, etc -- should be fee based. The state has invested money in camping upgrades, and parks where electricity has been added to camp sites has been very popular. The state is well-served to make one-time improvements like that to provide long-term revenue.

Admittedly, free day-admission is not cost neutral. The state should create a "state parks" income tax check-off... it would bring in about a half-million dollars a year. The DMV should also create special "state parks" license plates. The $15-per-plate annual donation would bring in another $750,000. (Sadly, it's the DNR that would fight these changes. These special check-offs for the state parks would compete with the wildlife preservation funds that we already have.) The legislature would need to cover about $5-million... or about 3/10,00th-of-one-percent of our state budget. I know that the people who are most likely to object are the people who use our state parks the most. I wish they'd reconsider.

Volunteer groups like friends of the parks already make up for budget gaps. They will, correctly, point out that many parks jobs are unfilled to save money. Those are legitimate concerns. But the issue is bigger than that. Right now there are thousands of people in Wisconsin who don't use our parks because they don't want to pay. Appreciating nature and the outdoors is one of the core traits of Wisconsinites. The way to build support for our state parks is to have more people use them.

Chris Conley
7.21.14

Image: Copper Falls State Park by Chris Conley