Pay to Play Outdoors

“You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.” (Bob Dylan)

Parks cost money to operate.  I remember paying admission fees to state parks when I was a young man.  I also remember the parks being well maintained with lots of staff and offering varied educational programs.What has changed?

In 1995,  taxpayers supported Wisconsin’s state park system with the help of user fees. Over the next 20 years, the taxpayers’ portion gradually shrank to the point that user fees supported the state park system with the help of taxpayers.  In 2015, the governor proposed that  the state parks become entirely self-funding and removed all general revenue from the parks’ budget–a 28% cut for the system.  To make up for that deficit, entrance and campground fees were increased.  Staff, maintenance, education and maintenance were cut.  The math hasn’t worked out very well in terms of creating the same experience.

How we spend tax dollars is a reflection of our priorities.  In this state, the emphasis has shifted to bigger and more roads, newer athletic stadiums, and lower taxes on the wealthy.  Natural resources and education?  Not so much. Yesterday, our state senate passed a mining bill that pitted environmentalists against corporate business. One legislator said:  “We’re giving away the best parts of ourselves. We’re a great state. We have clean water and we need someone to stand up and protect it.”

The state parks in Wisconsin are just barely getting by with support from lots of volunteers and “Friends” programs.  It isn’t hard to see the difference. For example,  last year, it took over a month to get our state stickers mailed to us because there wasn’t staff available to pick up the fees from the iron rangers in which we placed our check. When we called to see why our stickers hadn’t been mailed, we were told of the staffing issue and to write a note that the annual sticker had been applied for and place it in the window of our vehicle.

I frequently read rv blogs and forums in which people from around the country complain about the high cost of our entrance fees and campgrounds without commensurate quality, some saying they avoid Wisconsin for that reason.

In an era of expanding waistlines of young and old, along with people who can’t tell the difference between fake news and facts, there is good reason to encourage people to connect minds and bodies with nature.  Shifting from a state-based funding system to a user-based system seems like a bad idea when we continue to use general funding to build new athletic stadiums to watch others exercise, bigger and better roads that enable us to get home faster to watch cable tv, while lowering taxes to primarily benefit the rich who can afford lakeside homes protected by gates and cameras. Don’t even get me started on the recent corporate welfare to bribe Foxconn (a Chinese electronics company) with billions of tax dollars in exchange for a promise of jobs.

I know that Wisconsin isn’t the only state with these problems, but we used to take pride in this state that we were well above average in most categories.  While we are no longer one of the highest taxed states, the frayed edges are showing. You have to act like a great state, not just say you are a great state.  You have to get outside to know which way the wind blows.

Today’s hike was at Governor Nelson State Park on the north shore of Lake Mendota.  The park is surrounded by million dollar homes and overlooks the state capital in the distance.  I spent some time staring at the lake and walking a short Woodland Trail that views both the front yards of mansions and sacred Indian burial mounds (Panther, Conical).   Near the trailhead, there is a boat landing area with restrooms still open and a large public beach with views of the lake and the state capital in the distance. I didn’t see another person in the park during my hike.  The park office was closed.

One thought on “Pay to Play Outdoors

  1. It’s where I was raised, but after over 40 years of living elsewhere I have no idea anymore how Michigan proportions funding for their state parks and recreation areas. I do know that a Michigan resident can get access for nearly nothing, a $10 annual sticker on their registration, but non-residents get slammed for $7 a day at even the smallest facility unless they buy an annual windshield sticker for $31, and any camping fees are on top of that. I do have to say that the Michigan parks and recreation areas seem to be fairly well kept up though.

    Here in Texas state park access can be anywhere from free to $6 per day depending on the park but anyone, resident or not, can buy an annual pass for $70 that includes three get-half-off-the-second-night coupons for camping fees. That alone is worth about $30 if you stay in water/electric sites. (I see my pass expires in a few days. Time for another one!) Texas also relies heavily on volunteers for both operations and maintenance. Since I’m not a people person, my favorite is trail maintenance.

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