Outdoor enthusiasts visiting state parks could pay higher fees for popular campsites, rent cabins or homes, see more merchandising and corporate sponsorship, and buy individual passes rather than vehicle stickers under recommendations to plug a $1.4 million hole in the state’s parks budget.
Those are some of the recommendations included in a Department of Natural Resources report submitted Friday to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which had requested options to increase state park revenue.
State parks director Ben Bergey prepared the report, but DNR spokesman Jim Dick said the department is not expressing a preference among the various options. The options are meant to address a structural deficit caused when Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature removed all general tax dollars from the parks budget, requiring them to be self-sustaining.
The proposals come on top of park fee increases that were included in the 2015-17 budget. The current budget projects a $4.9 million drawdown of park reserves. The department’s 2017-19 budget request doesn’t specify how to shore up the parks budget. Walker is expected to propose his 2017-19 budget early next year.
Altogether, the report estimates the recommended options would generate $2.9 million more annual revenue in the short-term and $10.5 million per year over the long-term.
The increased fees — for both campsites and entrance — would be targeted at high-demand parks that account for 33 percent of total park attendance. The proposal would add $10 to daily campsite fees that currently range from $20 to $35 depending on residency and whether the site has electricity, for an extra $1.45 million in annual revenue.
The report identified six properties as high-demand state parks because of their proximity to urban areas and unique natural features — Devil’s Lake in Baraboo, Governor Dodge in Dodgeville, High Cliff in Sherwood, Kohler-Andrae in Sheboygan, Peninsula in Door County and Willow River in Hudson.
The report is also recommending raising admission prices by $5 per day for those same parks and to add $10 to the annual vehicle admission sticker for them, in order to generate another $1.45 million.
“It is possible the fee increase may meet consumer price resistance, but as past examples have shown, the resistance is usually for a short period,” Bergey wrote in the report.
As longer-term funding options, the report is recommending shifting from using vehicle stickers as passes to requiring individual passes, similar to what are used on some trails in the state park system. The department is projecting the shift could generate $12 to $15 million in annual revenue, up from the current $8 million in revenue.
Another proposal would allow state parks to lease land for indoor lodging, which it expects would generate $405,000 in annual revenue. The report notes that indoor lodging is common in parks across the country, but only allowed for people with disabilities in Wisconsin parks.
Finally, the report recommends securing patents and trademarks on state park names for the purpose of merchandising, as well as pursuing sponsorships, donations and advertisements “that support the department mission centered on the state park brand.”
Other options detailed, but not recommended, in the report include expanding the number of campsites with electricity, allowing the purchase of an annual vehicle sticker as part of an annual vehicle registration renewal and increasing all admission fees by $4 for annual passes and $2 for daily passes. Those options would generate $3.3 million in the short-term and as much as $7 million a year for the annual sticker depending on its popularity.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, a member of the Joint Finance Committee, said his primary concern with the recommendations is whether they would open the door to corporate naming rights for state parks.
“People who have used our state parks have very fond memories of Devil’s Lake State Park, as opposed to Devil’s Lake State Park brought to you by Menards,” Erpenbach said.
But he said he didn’t have a problem with raising park fees.
“Those I’ve talked to who use the parks don’t mind paying a little more, as long as they know the money is going toward the state parks,” Erpenbach said.
Gov. Scott Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said he is reviewing the report. The Republican co-chairpersons of the Joint Finance Committee did not respond to a request for comment.