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Resources chief: State park user fee would supplement funding

Rod Boshart, Cedar Rapids Gazette –

DES MOINES — The head of the state’s Department of Natural Resources says Iowans tell him they’re willing to pay a user fee to spruce up unkempt state park areas, but Gov. Terry Branstad says he doesn’t want to go there.

Department Director Roger Lande said his agency is having difficulty maintaining Iowa’s state-owned parks, recreational areas, preserves, forests and equestrian amenities to the standard of upkeep that users expect.

“We think we should explore that type of thing,” he said.

Lande raised the possibility of establishing a user fee in discussing a “status quo” fiscal 2013 budget request with Branstad this month. He said some groups and individuals have indicated that they would be willing to pay extra to improve conditions, and online capabilities make such a charge easier to administer.

“Maintaining the parks the way that Iowans want them maintained takes more money than we have. People are willing to pay a fee if they see they’re directly benefiting,” Lande said in an interview.

According to information from the department, about half of U.S. states charge adult fees for their parks systems, while more than two-thirds impose vehicle fees or issue annual passes.

State funding for the natural resources agency has declined since fiscal 2008, and with it the number of seasonal workers hired to maintain public parks during the peak recreational months. Public complaints prompted lawmakers to insist that more budget funds be earmarked for state park upkeep, so the seasonal work force should increase from 80 in fiscal 2011 to about 150 during fiscal 2012, which runs through June 30, said Jim Lawson, a district supervisor in the department’s state parks bureau.

Branstad, however, said he believed that reinstating a state park user fee would be “a pretty controversial thing.”

“Putting a user fee on everybody that uses the parks, I think, would be a very unpopular thing. I think we had it for one or two years and it really discouraged use,” the governor said in an interview. “Right now with our focus on the Healthiest State Initiative, I don’t think we want to do anything that’s going to diminish the use of our state park system.”

Under the Branstad-supported initiative, Iowa will strive to become the healthiest state in the nation by 2016.

Iowa imposed a $10 annual park user fee in 1987, which was in place until the General Assembly and Branstad launched the Resource Enhancement and Protection program in 1989. That initiative, envisioned to earmark $30 million annually for the state’s natural resources, has never been funded to that target level.

Branstad said he would prefer to rely on the Iowa State Parks Foundation — which he helped found with former Rep. Neal Smith — to generate private-sector donations designed to help improve parks in the run-up to the centennial year of the parks system in 2020. He said the non-profit is raising money and conducting a study toward that end.


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