Idaho State Parks and Recreation Looks to Operate More Like a Business 

Cash-strapped state agency launches 'parks passport' program

In recent years, shell-shocked state budgets led some legislatures to shutter state parks. That's a fate spared Idaho's 30 state parks--to this point.

While the flow of visitors hasn't slowed--4.5 million to 5.2 million campers and day users annually--IDPR's shrunken budget has forced the department to reevaluate its role. Keeping the gates open means answering a call to arms issued by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter.

"The governor asked all state agencies to start operating more like businesses," explained Jennifer Okerlund, IDPR communications manager. "Our agency took that very, very seriously and went to work immediately evaluating each of our parks and establishing business and marketing plans."

That includes selling a new product. Or rather, selling the same product--Idaho's state parks--in a new way. To do that, IDPR launched the Parks Passport, an annual pass to Idaho's parks that can be purchased at county Department of Motor Vehicle offices for $10. A single-day entry fee is $5.

"It's a bargain any way you look at it," said State Parks Director Nancy Merrill at a Sept. 28 press conference announcing the program.

That day, Otter became the first Passport customer and bought for four more passes to give to his children. Merrill estimates the program could net the cash-strapped department an additional $1.9 million per year.

"We lost 80 percent of our general fund in the past two years," she said. "This is one leg of our three-legged stool to get to financial sustainability," said Okerlund.

IDPR has also looked to better market its services. In July, the department debuted a revamped website and contracted Boise artist Ward Hooper to create unique brands, said Okerlund, to paint the picture of each individual park.

"Like Bruno Dunes, for example. Hooper has this ability to transform a scene into a classic image, a very emotive image, and just that logo with the dunes, with the wildlife surrounding it--you really get a snapshot of what's available in that park," said Okerlund.

The idea isn't unique to Idaho. Okerlund mentioned a passport program in Michigan, enacted in 2010. The Wolverine State's program also works with business partners that offer discounts for passport-holders.

"This program is essential for our agency in helping to ensure that Idaho State Parks stay open and accessible for generations to come," said Okerlund.

A predecessor to the program cost $40, of which Okerlund guesses the department sold only 20,000, previously available only through IDPR's branch offices and by phone. Now the program is more accessible, she said. IDPR worked with the Idaho Transportation Department to create the Passport's delivery system.

"It's rare for two state agencies to work so closely to bring a new program to Idahoans," said Okerlund.

Christine Fisher, registration program specialist with ITD, said the Parks Passport sticker is created using the same machines that print vehicle registration for license plates. A unique number issued to each passport is tied to the vehicle's license plate number and can be transferred should drivers change vehicles.

"You walk into the office, you say you need to renew, they queue that up on their registration machine and at a certain point in the transaction, it says 'Parks Passport, yes or no?'" Fisher said.

Passports can be purchased at a DMV any time. Those who choose to buy them are handed a freshly printed Parks Passport sticker, which can be affixed to the glass of whatever vehicle a driver chooses.

"Most everything that the counties register can have a passport added to it," said Fisher. "Anything that can drive into a state park, or can follow a vehicle into the state park and come off of a trailer--snowmobiles, ATVs and motorcycles--can have a passport."

Fisher emphasized that the program doesn't make ITD or the counties any money.

"It's the beauty of the simplicity of the way the process works which made that possible," Fisher said.

In addition, the pass offers discounts on boat launches and overnight camping, something the previous $40 pass didn't. Okerlund reported IDPR sold approximately 7,500 passports in October.

"At first blush, it seems to be very accepted by Idahoans and will be a success," she said.

The goal is for 20 percent participation rate for Idaho's 2.5 million registered vehicles.

"It's just a reality of what's happened, economically, to our state in the past few years," she said. "Our agency--we took a significant hit. And people need to understand this agency is really not supported by tax support anymore. This agency receives about $1.4 million in tax support. The rest of the ongoing management and operation comes from user receipts and the sale of the passport."

IDPR will continue to find ways to cut costs while managing maintenance of facilities across the state.

"For any business, your staff costs are going to be one of your largest expenses, but in our case, we have one, sometimes two staff members operating an entire park. That's our largest expense. It's not exorbitant by any stretch of the imagination," she said. "We're totally reliant on volunteers and seasonals."

Future IDPR programs will have to look into more ways to generate revenue. The Parks Passport is the start of that, as the program looks to shift to a more business-minded operation.

"No one component is going to be the absolute fiscal saving grace for the agency," said Okerlund. "Hopefully in the end, we will become an agency that is mostly self-sustaining. That's really the overall goal."

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