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Seeking Green for Idaho Parks and Rec

Who pays to maintain Idaho's parks and trails?

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While the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation will continue to exist after Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter threatened to dissolve it last month, it will have much less juice to maintain the state's 30 state parks. And some who are intimately familiar with the department are concerned that the large network of trails and recreational facilities it supports all across the state and the department's conservation and historic preservation values could suffer as well.

Part of the problem is that many people, including lawmakers, do not realize that the parks side is funded differently and operates differently than the rec side.

"We still do not have a complete understanding in the Legislature of the difference in these programs," said Steve Klatt, chairman of the Parks and Rec board.

That means lawmakers could attempt to rob some of the recreation funds, which come almost exclusively from fees and taxes paid by user groups--snowmobilers, ATV and motorbike riders and a small group of cross-country skiers and snowshoers--to prop up the parks.

Parks and Rec Director Nancy Merrill took over the department in September 2009. Last month she found out that she'd have to figure out a way to make state parks pay their own way or lose her agency. Merrill has promised to maintain the budgetary wall between parks and recreation, but her business plan for the agency includes trimming some 25 people from the agency's staff, including finance, purchasing, planning and tech support. That could affect the processing of permits, research and planning on recreation programs and general support for the recreation side. It could also affect garbage collection and maintenance at some trailheads at state parks.

"When you have an agency as small as ours, really everyone in the agency is going to be impacted," said Jennifer Wernex, spokeswoman for the department.

And it's not clear how the department's small non-motorized recreation program, which has scant independent funding, will fare.

"We have really tried to hang onto a non-motorized program," Klatt said. "We have a statutory requirement to do that ... but there is no funding for that."

The non-motorized program is responsible for 16 park-and-ski areas (including the ones near Idaho City), develops backcountry yurts, coordinates the cross-state Idaho Centennial Trail and manages a rails-to-trails program.

The state's 30 parks are expensive to run, but the bulk of the agency's budget goes directly to grants for recreational opportunities across the state. Last year the department handed out more than 100 grants, from $4,000 for picnic shelters at McTucker Ponds in Bingham County to $120,000 to Idaho Department of Fish and Game for a boat launch expansion on Spirit Lake.

The grant money comes from several sources. Some of it comes out of the state gas tax, from fuel that is spent on off-highway riding or boating. Otter has tried to take that money away from the agency as well, but the Legislature is recommending against that.

Much of the recreation funding comes directly from registration fees on off-highway vehicles--ATV riders or snowmobilers can specify where they ride and which county they would like their fees to assist.

"We spend our money where we actually ride," said Sandra Mitchell, executive director of the Idaho Recreation Council and public lands director for the Idaho State Snowmobile Association. "We are very involved with recreation and with our funding, and that's really important because it is private money."

Mitchell said that the off-road community willingly pays to register their machines, and with their user fees, they get to sit on Parks and Rec advisory councils, which direct the department's many grant programs.

But much of what Mitchell calls "private money" goes to build trails on public lands, and there is very little money spent on hikers, bikers and skiers.

The Idaho Conservation League supports motorized use in appropriate places, but conservation associate Brad Smith said that while federal fuel taxes provide some funding for non-motorized recreation, the state fuel tax does not.

"If I go up to the Sawtooth Wilderness for example, to go on a hike, I am buying fuel to get to the Sawtooths ... I'm still paying for the gasoline to get there, I should get a share of that," Smith said.

Mountain bikers are again considering a registration program to help fund mountain bike trails, and horse packers are working on a bill this year to establish registration fees for horse trailers to help pay for backcountry horse camps (it would not apply to agricultural use).

And Mitchell said backcountry skiers and hikers are free to use improved snowmobile parking areas. But that gets back to the whole idea of state-sponsored parks and recreation services in the first place: If these amenities are good for everyone, if skiers and snowmobilers alike can utilize the parking areas and groomed trails, why shouldn't everyone in the state support them with a little tax money?

Kate Chase of Island Park has been instrumental in setting up the Friends of Harriman State Park to coordinate fund-raising and volunteers for her local park. She has faced some criticism for asking for donations to help the park when many people think the state should continue to support it.

"We're hoping that through organizations like the Friends of Harriman State Park, we're going to try to form a cushion for the park," Chase said.

But Chase, who describes herself as a tree-hugger who is engaged to marry a sledneck, acknowledges privately funded programs change the notion of public parks and trails.

"There is a real paradigm shift when the funding is no longer coming from the tax rolls," Chase said.

For his part, Klatt acknowledges the lack of state resources right now to pay for parks. But he does not see the move to cut Parks and Rec off the tax rolls as permanent.

"You could say in the future, I would not be embarrassed to go back to the Legislature to put some money back into the park system," he said.

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