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'Friends' Rescue Many Wisconsin State Parks

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June 10, 2013 by   - () Leave a Comment

When the state of Wisconsin couldn’t afford bulletproof vests for five rangers at Devil’s Lake State Park near Baraboo several years ago, it got a little help from its friends. The park’s all-volunteer friends group raised the necessary $2,500.

“It’s a standard equipment kind of thing,” said park superintendent Steve Schmelzer, explaining that rangers must occasionally deal with dangerous situations, like domestic disturbances and fights. “But it’s not something you have built into your budget.”

State support for Wisconsin’s state parks has slid steadily. General purpose revenue covered 50% of their operations in the late 1990s, but only 21% today, the Appleton Post-Crescent reported.

In response, park staff increasingly rely on friends groups to provide volunteer help, fundraise and apply for grants to pay for programs, projects and equipment. Among other things:

  • Since 2003, Friends of Blue Mound State Park has raised $500,000 to construct an all-season shelter and learning center at the park west of Madison. The shelter opened to the public in January, offering visitors a chance to hike, bike and cross-country ski year-round.
  • Friends of Lapham Peak in Waukesha County raised $225,000 to fund a snowmaking project to groom nearly a mile of cross-country snow trails. The group hopes to raise an additional $630,000 to extend the snow trail system another four kilometers.
  • Friends of Kohler-Andrae State Park near Sheboygan pulled in $125,000 to build a wheelchair accessible cabin.
  • Friends of Mirror Lake State Park near Wisconsin Dells raised $70,000 through firewood and concession sales to build an outdoor amphitheater, which opened in 2012, for performances, dances and naturalist programs.

“We depend a lot on friends to help us with some of our work,” said Dan Schuller, director of Wisconsin State Parks. “We have a very strong friends group program in Wisconsin, one of the best in the nation.”

Wisconsin is the only state park system in the country to have friends groups for every property it operates, according to a 2012 report from the National Association of State Park Directors. Only four states with much larger parks programs — Massachusetts, New York, California and Florida — have more support groups.

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