Travel Recreation

Visitors, but not funds, flock to Iowa’s state parks

A man fishes for walleye and crappie Nov. 27, 2020, at Lake Macbride State Park near Solon. Visitations to Iowa’s state parks skyrocketed to a record 16.6 million last year, amplifying an upward trend since 1995. (The Gazette)

As tourists flock to Iowa’s state parks in record numbers, the park system struggles to sustain adequate funding from the state, despite being a major contributor to its economy and an escape for Iowans amid a pandemic, an investigation by IowaWatch has found.

Iowa’s park system is one of state government’s most popular programs. Visitations skyrocketed to a record 16.6 million last year, amplifying an upward trend since 1995. Yet the number of park rangers needed to serve that influx has gone in reverse while state funding for parks remained flat, according to data from the nonprofit Iowa Parks Foundation.

“These places have to be maintained to be preserved and protected, and it does require resources,” said Patricia Boddy, a former deputy director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources who was involved in a 2011 comprehensive architectural design study of parks.

“We’ve got parks that are beautiful,” she said. “They are amazing spaces; they were set aside for their pristine qualities and what they can do for the soul, and we’re letting them go downhill rapidly because we won’t make the investment.”

Park visitors enjoy a paddle July 24, 2021, on Backbone Lake at Backbone State Park near Dundee. Backbone is the oldest of Iowa’s state parks. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

State employee and visitation data show a ranger force of 55 has been slashed to 35 since 1995. Viewed in proportion to skyrocketing visitations, that cutback appears devastating: The ranger force now is down to 1 ranger for every 474,286 park visits from the 1995 ratio of 1 to 217,700.

Such staff cuts could affect park staff’s ability to do what they normally do — reduce reckless boating, curb drug abuse, control vandalism, deal with domestic spats and public drunkenness among users, enforce illegal hunting and fishing laws and maintain safe and sanitary conditions.

The IowaWatch investigation found that, despite funding problems and staff cuts, Iowa’s parks are usable and most visitors say they enjoy them. Most of the 24 parks that were visited a part of the reporting were generally clean and adequately maintained, although exceptions were not uncommon and parks officials depend heavily on volunteers.

But such a hold-what-you-got operation worries park advocates and experts. They say the continuous and decadelong funding shortage and staffing decline will increasingly take its toll.

Planned park maintenance and renovations often are sidelined, State Parks Bureau data show. And detailed plans that would accommodate the demand and build for the future gather dust. Sometimes, the lack of park funding manifests itself at the campsite level.

The parks got so busy earlier this year that weekend campsite reservations for June and July were booked up by late May. During one June 2020 weekend, the crush of visitors at Lake Macbride State Park in Johnson County forced the state to close the entrances temporarily because beachgoers had overwhelmed the staff. Parking lots were full and boat ramps packed. The state had to dispatch rangers from elsewhere to help, leaving other parks in Southeast Iowa uncovered.

In an earlier IowaWatch report, state Rep. Charles Isenhart, D-Dubuque, said funding for park operations fell to $5.7 million in 2019 from $6.6 million in 2010 — a 26 percent decrease when adjusting for inflation — before ticking up to $6.2 million last year. In the meantime, two ambitious plans that could have created a permanent revenue stream and addressed some of the issues have been all but abandoned.

One of those plans, the Parks to People Strategic Plan, was crafted in 2014 by the Iowa Parks Foundation, with the help and support of Iowa DNR under then-Gov. Terry Branstad. It intended to create a fully connected parks system that links Iowa’s landscape of public and private lands and parks, trails and waterways; however, only three regions — which translates to 12 of Iowa’s 99 counties — have been formed to connect their parks.

The other plan created the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund through a state constitutional amendment. It had gained near unanimous, bipartisan support in the Iowa Legislature and was subsequently approved by 63 percent of the voters in a 2010 referendum. It was seen as a funding panacea for Iowa’s natural resources and parks.

The panacea fades

To date, the trust fund remains empty.

“We thought it was heralding this great new era,” said Boddy, who served as interim Iowa DNR director when the constitutional amendment was passed. “What a disappointment.”

Ted Kourousis, executive director of Glacial Lakes Region for Parks to People, said, “It’s frustrating to see what other states have done to improve their environmental amenities and opportunities. Iowa lags so far behind in public ownership of property in state parks, amenities within those state parks, things for people to do outdoor recreation wise.”

The Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund is commonly referred to as the Iowa Water and Land Legacy, or IWILL.

A bipartisan panel of legislators and stakeholders proposed IWILL in 2006. After nearly three years of meetings and research, it proposed the trust fund and stipulated that three-eighths of a cent of a future sales tax hikes go to it. The committee’s research estimated a sustainable total of $150 million annually over base funding is needed for Iowa’s conservation and natural resources, including state parks.

Iowa Code dictates the increased sales tax would not be used to fund existing programs. Instead, it would be distributed into areas like lake restoration, trail construction, soil conservation and watershed protection, local conservation partnership programs, the Resource Enhancement and Protection Program — known as REAP– and the Iowa DNR.

Although 63 percent of Iowa voters ratified IWILL, lawmakers have yet to pass a sales tax increase, leaving the fund empty.

Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed in 2020 a complicated tax swap plan that would have increased the sales tax — and put some money in the fund but under a different formula — and cut income taxes and property taxes. Parts of the plan gained traction in the Iowa Legislature — but there was bipartisan opposition to a sales tax increase.

Reynolds, Senate Majority Leader Jake Chapman, R-Adel, and House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, did not respond to numerous emails and phone calls requesting their comments.

Advocates: Parks boost economy

The funding problems came despite widespread agreement in state reports that parks greatly contribute to Iowa’s economy and quality of life.

Outdoor recreation, which includes state parks and forests, generates more than $6.1 billion in annual consumer spending in Iowa while creating 75,000 jobs, $1.7 billion in wages and $433 million in state and local tax revenues, according to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

A state study, prepared by the Reynolds administration, says the benefits are even greater — generating $8.7 billion in consumer spending, employing 83,000 Iowans, contributing $2.7 billion in wages and $649 million in in-state and local tax revenue. “Open spaces, parks and their accompanying outdoor recreation amenities are vitally important to Iowa’s economy,” the 2018 study said.

It’s not just about money. The parks are also an escape.

For Brittany Peters of Corydon, state parks have been a lifesaver during the COVID-19 pandemic. She and 220 other users belong to the Facebook group “Love of Iowa State Parks.”

“I have three young kids, and we needed to get outside for fresh air as soon as weather permitted. It was rejuvenating to be kayaking Iowa’s waters and refreshing to hike into our lush green, forested parks,” Peters said. “During a time when it wasn’t safe to explore the greater world, Iowa’s parks provided a safe place to explore and learn about our home state.”

People like Peters have been flocking to Iowa’s parks for the past 10 years. According to state data, the numbers of visitors have ranged from 13.7 and 15.5 million annually over the past decade.

Amy Ziegler, the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s tourism manager, says the pandemic has reinforced the importance of state parks.

“I think especially in the last year the pandemic has shown us outdoor recreation opportunities are absolutely critical, not just from a travel and tourism perspective, but also from a quality-of-life perspective,” Ziegler said. “It has really given us that opportunity to get out and about when there wasn’t a whole lot we could do. Anecdotally, we can absolutely see the benefit of a community being near a state park.”

For any community near a state park, an increase in visitation brings economic stimulation. Park visitors will buy gas, eat at restaurants, shop, go to museums and local attractions, she said.

Todd Coffelt, chief of Iowa DNR’s Parks, Forests and Preserves Bureau, said Iowa DNR must address the gap between park resources and increased use, and hiring seasonal instead of full-time staff has helped. The park has about 330 seasonal staff for its 67 parks and four state forests.

Todd Coffelt, chief of the Parks, Forests and Preserves Bureau of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, speaks July 24, 2020, during the 100th Anniversary Re-Dedication Ceremony of Backbone State Park near Dundee. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Coffelt said lawmakers gave $2 million to the Iowa DNR in 2018 to prepare state parks for the 2020 centennial; it was used for deferred maintenance, repair, renovation and other capital expenses. Though Coffelt says the agency successfully manages park maintenance within budget limits, he feels the public plays a role in the quest for more sustainable funding.

“The challenge … is we don’t get as much money as we could spend on deferred maintenance and renovation, and that will continue to be a balance …,” Coffelt said. “It’s about communicating. Sharing that with the public and letting them be the voice to legislators who make the budget.”

Iowa Parks Foundation President Joe Gunderson also emphasizes the public’s vital role. He believes a key to sustaining Iowa’s parks system is working from the ground up — focusing on communication and cooperation among locals rather than state government involvement.

“One of the things that attracted me to Parks to People was that it’s all bottom-up and vocally driven,” Gunderson said. “It takes the communication of personalities in these regions to really make it work.”

Vision for parks

Despite funding difficulties and the lack of an official strategic plan for parks, Iowa’s state parks are not without a visionary direction.

That vision comes from the Iowa Parks Foundation’s 2014 “Parks to People” plan. In 2014, then-Gov. Branstad expressed support for the plan and its potential when its first region — Grant Wood, in Jackson, Jones and Dubuque counties — was announced.

“This region will lead the state and show us what is possible with this kind of public and private partnership,” he was quoted as saying then. “If this is done well and done right, we will see support for this in future years” in the Iowa Legislature

The plan’s regional approach to park planning would be financed with state and private sources. Under the proposal, Iowa counties looking to become a Parks to People region would “self-select” and merge after assessing their natural and financial resources. Each region would submit a strategic plan; after selection by a foundation steering committee, the new region would receive a state grant of $1.9 million. Every dollar from the state must be matched with $5 from local and private resources.

Coffelt says the three regions crated so far have been successful.

“It caused people to come to the table, put down the walls and have the conversation on how they could work together,” he said.

Gunderson is unsure why so few other counties have joined forces with his organization He thinks factors like demographics and geography may play a part. The foundation’s regional formula may work best where small rural counties surround a mid-sized city.

In the Grant Wood Loop Region, the first of the three, $52 million has been spent for over 70 projects across the three-county region since the end of its pilot phase in 2018. Assistant Program Director Nicolas Hockenberry said his region secured approximately $7.6 million from various state programs.

However, project coordinator David Heiar said the Grant Wood Loop has prioritized county parks — making little progress in the region’s state parks.

Stephen J. Berry contributed to this report. IowaWatch — The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news outlet that strives to be the state’s leading collaborative investigative news organization. Read more or support its mission at iowawatch.org.