by Senator Howard Marklein
October 30, 2020
Record Attendance at State Parks Amid Pandemic
This summer, 1,800,000 more people visited our State Parks than last year! The COVID-19 Pandemic certainly encouraged this attendance as families took time to enjoy the outdoors. But I think visitors are also encouraged by new facilities, updated technology and enhanced experiences in our parks.
In March, 942,926 people visited the parks while admission was free. But even in May, when we began charging entrance fees again, 1,697,963 people visited our parks. June was even busier with more than 500,000 new visitors than last year!
In total, 6.4 million people visited our State Parks through August 30, 2020. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reported that 73% of campsites, system-wide, were reserved in July, compared to 62% in July 2019. With the great weather we have been enjoying, I’m sure the numbers for September and October will be just as impressive.
If you have been following my work on your behalf over the last several years, you know that the state parks have been one of my special projects. I have worked hard to help the parks to be financially solvent and to use surpluses in park funds for necessary improvements, updates and maintenance. I have supported policy initiatives to give the park system flexibility to manage resources and reservations to capitalize on all of our assets.
Several years ago, during the 2015-16 State Budget, I led an effort to reform the way revenue is generated for the Wisconsin State Park System using private-sector strategies. My colleagues and I wanted to give the parks the freedom to manage their resources, capitalize on their high-demand properties and find ways to generate income in order to become self-sufficient. With self-sufficiency, the parks are able to make improvements faster, respond to market demands and promote our parks effectively.
In the 2017-18 state budget, I authored another motion to provide additional tools and flexibility for the DNR to continue moving toward self-sustainability for the state park system. These tools included allowing the DNR the option to invest $1 million each year of the biennium from the State Parks Account for maintenance and improvement projects such as repairing facilities, replacing signage, replacing drinking fountains and upgrading non-electric sites to electricity; lifting the state-wide cap for electrical sites from 30% to 35% of campsites statewide; increasing the park sticker fee by $5 for residents and non-residents; creating a $5 surcharge for electrical sites at popular parks; and increasing the range up to $10 for nightly camping fees at the Secretary’s discretion.
Prior to these reforms, Wisconsin taxpayers were subsidizing campers from out-of-state. Visitors were only charged $2 more than a Wisconsin resident for a campsite. Increasing camping fees have not negatively impacted camping reservations. In fact, camping reservations continue to increase every year.
In April 2018, the Joint Finance Committee (JFC), of which I am a member, allocated an additional $2.2 million on top of the $2 million allocated in the state budget to the state parks. These funds, which come from the State Parks Fund, were used for additional improvements and remodeling this summer. This investment is leveraged with funding from local park Friends groups, stewardship funding and other project-based funding.
Then, the State Building Commission authorized the renovation and construction of 200 additional electrical campsites system-wide. Park visitors tell us that they want more electric sites and the reforms we have made, as well as the flexibility for investments, are enabling the State Parks to respond quickly to this demand, which will generate additional revenues in turn.
In the 2019-20 State Budget, we provided an additional $1 million to the operational budget for the park system for staff salaries, materials and other needs. We also provided funding to finish the new site electrification project.
I have been consistently monitoring the outcomes of these reforms. Overall, our state park system is flourishing, improving and offering our state’s citizens and visitors world class outdoor opportunities!
Each year, my family camps in Peninsula State Park in Door County. We have been camping there together for many years. This summer, I was impressed to observe the new bath houses, significant improvements to existing campsites and new electrical sites available to visitors. They are also working on the Eagle Tower suite, South Nicolet Campground, the Nature Center and Northern Sky Theater. There is a lot of investment and renewal going on at this park.
But it is not the only one. The State Building Commission approved nearly $18 million for improvements at State Parks this year. The lists of projects includes $1,046,000 to replace the shower building at Yellowstone State Park in Blanchardville, right here in the 17th Senate District.
As we continue to enjoy a very beautiful autumn and seek ways to get outside with our families, I hope you will take time to visit one of our State Parks. I am very proud of my work on the state parks and will continue to seek ways to support them in the future.
As always, please do not hesitate to connect with me to provide input, ideas or to seek assistance. Send an email to email@example.com or call 608-266-0703.