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Idaho State Parks Bank on New $10 ‘Passport’ Program

January 18, 2012 by   - () Leave a Comment

Green squares mark location of state parks in Idaho.

The Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation is launching a new program that allows vehicle owners to voluntarily pay a $10 fee when they register their cars that gives them access to 30 state parks in an effort to raise money for the embattled agency.

Director Nancy Merrill hopes the idea, modeled after a successful program in Michigan, will alleviate financial pressure on her agency that has been mounting since Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter moved to wean it from taxpayer support two years ago, The Associated Press reported.

Parks and Recreation currently offers a similar annual parks pass, but it now costs $40 and raises only $800,000 annually. Merrill is banking on the reduced price — and access to a much-broader audience through Idaho’s car registration program — to help bring in an additional $1.9 million annually.

“We’ve been going through a lot of troubles and strife these last few years, and we’re now an agency reinvented,” Merrill told the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday (Jan. 17). “We’re seeking a dedicated funding source. It would move us toward a long-term sustainable process.”

She expects a bill to create the program to be introduced Jan. 31. It’s called the Idaho State Parks Passport.

Parks and Recreation funding is due to fall 2.7% to $35 million for fiscal year 2013, with only $1.3 million coming from taxpayers, according to Otter’s recommendation to the Legislature. Almost everything else comes from user fees, including camping, boat launches and RV hookups.

State support is down 80% from 2010, when Otter gave Merrill the mandate to slash government support as the recession pinched overall Idaho tax revenue.

Michigan Successful

In Michigan, a similar program raised $10 million in the first eight months in 2011, and ended the year with $18 million in the bank, Merrill said. It allows annual access to Michigan’s 98 state parks and recreations areas and 1,000 boat launches.

About 28% of renewing vehicle owners opted for the Michigan sticker.

Merrill said she’s being a little more conservative in Idaho, which has a third as many parks. She estimates the owners of about 20% of Idaho vehicles, amounting to roughly 250,000 registrations, will take advantage of the program.

By itself, that would generate $2.5 million.

About $800,000 from Idaho’s existing $40 passport program would be lost, reducing the net take to $1.7 million.

But with revenue from out-of-state Idaho parks users who’d still pay $40 for an annual pass, combined with proceeds from campers, boaters and day-trippers who don’t have an Idaho State Parks Passport, the total new money would top out at about $1.9 million, Merrill estimates.

It’s needed to pay for deferred maintenance, because the loss of state taxpayer funding didn’t negate the need to continue to fix roofs, bathrooms and other ailing park infrastructure.

“We’ve had more visitors with less staff,” Merrill told lawmakers, adding each of Idaho’s 30 parks has been asked to come up with a business plan to capitalize on new revenue opportunities.

For instance, there will likely be Frisbee-golf rentals at Massacre Rocks along U.S. Interstate 84 in southern Idaho, sand board rentals at Bruneau Dunes State Park east of Mountain Home and weddings at Old Mission State Park in Cataldo in northern Idaho.

“As they talk about ways to improve facilities like fixing bathrooms, they’re also talking about marketing ideas,” she said.

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