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By Susan Buxton, Director, Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation 

State parks in the United States confront a variety of challenges, including increased visitation, deferred maintenance, employee recruitment/retention and workforce housing shortages. All of these issues are ever more pressing as the number of visitors to state parks has been steadily increasing, thus putting even more pressure on budgets.

Determined to preserve and maintain these outdoor treasures, Idaho’s Governor Brad Little and the Idaho Legislature have made the largest investment in outdoor recreation since Idaho’s statehood in 1890. An astounding $140 million dollars in one-time appropriations were allocated to the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation (IDPR) over the last two fiscal years. This funding is specifically for capital improvement projects, to address a severe maintenance backlog, and to provide additional access and capacity for Idaho’s state park system, which has been bursting to the seams with visitors. 

Additionally, some $45 million of the state’s $750 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding was appropriated to the IDPR. 

Fortunately, unlike many other states, IDPR has dedicated funds coming in each year. In fact, 95% of its annual operating budget is raised through internal mechanisms, mainly camping fees, recreational vehicle permits and the $10 annual Idaho Parks Passport. This means Idaho state parks have little reliance on tax dollars. 

Deferred Maintenance Backlog

Dedicated funding streams aside, the state has historically had little wiggle room when it comes to the maintenance backlog and even less so for increasing outdoor recreation capacity.

Idaho’s state park system has over $140 million in maintenance backlog across approximately 60,000 acres of land. The deferred maintenance includes broken sewage lines, aging water and electrical facilities, and historic and administrative buildings held together with duct tape, wire, and hope.  

Both state and federal outdoor recreation facilities face similar challenges. The National Park Service (NPS)  estimates that nationwide, they have more than $23 billion in maintenance backlog across over 70,000 sites. The US Forest Service (USFS) approximates a staggering $6 billion in backlog. And the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is nearing $4 billion. Additionally, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) also has about a $2 billion backlog. 

Increased Recreation Capacity

The Idaho state park system has seen more than a million additional users from 2019 to 2020 and the steadily increasing numbers that poured in during that pandemic year haven’t abated.  

That’s a fundamental reason why the additional contribution of funds from the state’s governor and legislature, as well as the ARPA money, has been so important. While addressing deferred maintenance across the state, IDPR is also planning to add 450 campsites, 25-day use areas and 150 additions to docks and boat slips.  We’ve also been working in conjunction with federal land managers (approximately 60% of Idaho’s land is owned by the federal government) to spend the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) dollars, a funding mechanism signed into law by President Trump in 2020 to benefit outdoor recreation.

Employee Recruitment and Retention

Alongside aging infrastructure and the challenges of increased park visitation and state population growth, the need for recruitment and retention is at an all-time high. The sustained increase in visitation necessitates additional full-time positions (FTPs) to manage this growth. 

To put this in perspective, in FY2010, IDPR had 164.5 FTPs. The following year, layoffs from the Great Recession resulted in a loss of 25 FTPs, a 15% reduction in our workforce. Since then, the agency has increased our FTPs by less than 1% per year while managing over 65% more visitors.

As it stands, the ratio of IDPR’s visitors to employees is staggeringly low at one employee for every 38,800 visitors. For comparison, the National Park System – which is itself critically understaffed -- has one for every 15,000 visitors.

IDPR’s employee salaries have also struggled to keep up with inflation and the cost of living. There are fewer places to rent near our parks, which often fall in rural parts of the state or in expensive resort areas. All these factors create challenges in Idaho and throughout the country.

The Value of Nature

Despite the many challenges, we continue to pursue our mission of improving the quality of life in Idaho through outdoor recreation and resource stewardship. For IDPR, and land managers across the country, the benefits of nature far exceed any costs incurred to manage these beautiful spaces.

Studies continue to prove a direct correlation between positive mental and physical well-being and spending time outdoors. With the uptick in mental illnesses, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, suicide and more, Idaho’s state parks remain a place of refuge and respite for millions of people each year. The Gem State’s historic investment in outdoor recreation will ensure that there will be even more access, capacity, and opportunity for generations to come.

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