Neighbors show how to save our parks

Mike McFadzen, master cross county skier extraordinaire, has spent two decades advocating for Wisconsin trails and state parks. Here’s a  recent call-to-action he wrote:

The Ugly Underbelly of the Wisconsin State Park System

Wisconsin boasts abundant public waters and lands including 66 state parks, 44 state trails, 10 state forests and several recreation areas. These natural treasures represent some of the most diverse and scenic landscapes in the Midwest.

However, beneath the surface lies a less appealing reality. Declining infrastructure and deferred maintenance have pushed the state lands system to the breaking point. With estimated deferred maintenance and project costs totaling $1 billion, the Wisconsin legislature is underfunding state parks infrastructure, operations, and staff.  Minnesota and Michigan leverage almost 3 times the funding into their state lands as compared to Wisconsin

There are approximately 6,000 projects that need to be performed including work on decaying roads, bridges, buildings, dams, water infrastructure and septic systems-essential for the health and safety of visitors. Key visitor facilities and hundreds of miles of trail are closed. These problems are compounded by having fewer employees to work on these projects.

To get a better understanding of the situation on a local level, I toured the Kettle Moraine State Forest for a firsthand look. Many buildings, including bathrooms, septic systems, and drain fields were built in the 1970s.  Even older, the Forest headquarters and other structures were built by the WCC in the 1940s. It is no longer feasible to repair some of the existing electrical and water infrastructure as many parts are no longer available.  Water and sewage systems are failing, almost all of the 90 buildings need repair with road, bridge, and culvert systems of similar vintage.

Midwest Parks Funding

Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan park systems are similar in size.   Minnesota funds its state lands system at over $70 M annually with revenue from multiple sources including taxes, user fees, lottery revenue and a Legacy Park and Trails Fund.

Michigan’s state parks also have several revenue streams including a $500M endowment fund, oil and gas tax revenues, user fees, general fund tax, and a recreation passport with funding estimated to be $80M annually.

Wisconsin spends relatively little on parks and recreation compared to other states nationally, spending $19.6M to operate the system which equates to $3.39 per state resident, less than any other state except Texas.

Wisconsin is one of the only state park systems in the county that funds its operations almost solely from user fees. This has led to the gradual deterioration of state park infrastructure and operations. The transition to a self-funding model views parks as a commodity that ignores planning and upkeep. The self-funded, user-fee model doesn’t work and will harm the next generation of park users.

Due to legislative mandates, parks lost 40 full-time equivalents in the last 15 years with visitation doubling. Key positions cut include naturalists and educators which help youth and families connect with natural resources that often become a lifetime ethic. This is further complicated by surrounding states picking off Wisconsin employees because of better compensation and work environment.

Economic Impact of State Lands

Outdoor recreation added $8.7 billion to Wisconsin’s economy in 2022 and supported 89,000 jobs, according to the WI Policy Forum.  State lands are an economic driver with many locales dependent on them for tourism.  Visitors use state lands for a large portion of these visits. State Leaders seem to be missing the huge economic impact parks bring to our state.

Funding Solutions for State Lands

The best option for funding parks and getting at the infrastructure problems would be to restore general-purpose revenue (GPR) which most people support. Tax-payer funding was cut in 2015 when the legislature passed and Governor Walker signed into law Act 55. To offset this reduction, fees were raised including park admission, trail use, and camping. This pay-to-play model can price out families and low-income wage earners.

Besides restoring GPR, Wisconsin needs to adopt the Michigan Passport model. This would replace the WI Park Sticker with a new system that occurs concurrently with your annual driver’s license renewal. When your license is renewed, there would be a box to check to “opt in” to the Passport System.  MI raised over $37M in 2022 from the Passport System alone while Wisconsin received only $19M from its park sticker system and user fees combined.   Michigan Governor Whitmer recently proposed automatic enrollment in the Passport System which would raise more even monies for Michigan Parks.

Wisconsin must explore alternative funding models, prioritize infrastructure investment, and recognize the vital role state lands play in our economy and quality of life. Only then can we ensure that future generations continue to enjoy these natural gems. A few simple moves by the Wisconsin legislature can help turn this ailing ship around.

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