The Great Recession wasn’t kind to state parks in Nevada.
Since 2009, the parks budget has been cut by 60 percent, leaving administrator Eric Johnson little choice but to chop personnel and maintenance resources.
When budget cuts were mandated, it was easy to view the line items that support Nevada’s 23 parks, recreation areas and historical sites as nonessential when crucial services such as public safety and health care were enduring their own financial crises.
State parks have grown important to Nevada’s economy as centerpieces of scenery and recreation. As the state diversifies its marketing as a haven for outdoor adventure as well as world-class entertainment, the role of the parks becomes more important. Dozens of businesses ranging from tour bus companies to off-road all-terrain-vehicle adventure experiences take thousands of tourists to Nevada’s backcountry every year, paying negotiated fees to the state for access.
The state lost one park in the recession, Dangberg Home Ranch at Minden, the state’s first successful livestock ranch, operated as a historical site with Douglas County. Today, a support group manages the park and conducts tours.
“Our goal,” Johnson said, “was to operate on our limited budget in ways that didn’t directly affect the visitor. The most difficult part of that was losing our daily maintenance staff.”
A deferred maintenance program was ordered to conserve money. That meant small things that needed fixing but weren’t essential to operations were delayed. Broken toilets stayed broken. Fresh paint was put on hold.
In some instances, facilities were closed to the public, and in others, park workers put up signs to explain exactly why something wasn’t available, particularly if it was closed because of vandalism.
But there’s a chance for the parks to rebound. Johnson, a 30-year park employee who once worked at Valley of Fire, and his staff have developed a new revenue source and are exploring another that is being used successfully in state park systems in Montana, Michigan, Idaho, Kansas and Washington.
Five gift shops have been opened in parks in 2012, three of them in Southern Nevada. Two of the shops are in the state’s most popular parks, Valley of Fire and Lake Tahoe, with others at Spring Valley Ranch, Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park and Cathedral Gorge in Lincoln County.
The shops sell books and souvenirs with funds that feed an enterprise fund. The intent was to cover the cost of the operation with any profit going toward park programs. Money formerly devoted to programs now would go to operation and maintenance.
Johnson said in the first year of operation, the shop at Valley of Fire generated about $380,000. Considering that it costs $950,000 a year to cover the costs of supplies, staffing and utilities at Valley of Fire, Johnson viewed the gift shop concept as a success.
In the most recent legislative session, lawmakers approved the establishment of an endowment fund for state parks and historic preservation. Interest from the endowment would be used to enhance parks and protect cultural resources.
So far, there isn’t any money in the endowment fund, but Johnson expects to receive a large gift in the weeks ahead.
Another idea under study may have the greatest potential yet to boost finances for state parks.
The idea reportedly took root in Montana and was perfected in Michigan. Since its launch in the Great Lakes State, the plan since has been duplicated in Idaho, Washington and Kansas.
It was in Michigan where a state gambled and won on state parks.
Ron Olson, head of parks and recreation for the state of Michigan, said in 2004 his department, previously funded by the state’s general fund, saw $9 million in cuts. When Olson arrived in January 2005, there was a projected deficit in the parks department and revenue had fallen about 15 percent a year since 2000.
When general fund support was cut off, the state fell $4.8 million short of funding day-to-day operations. It was then that the Citizens Committee for Michigan State Parks, a volunteer group, developed a proposal to establish a new, stable funding source.
For years, the state offered an annual pass for admission to state parks costing Michigan residents $24 a year. Per-day admission was $8 per car.
The committee asked what would happen if the annual fee was dramatically reduced and made available when residents renewed license plates on their cars.
The Michigan Legislature approved the so-called “Recreation Passport” in 2010 with the first purchases occurring in 2011. The Michigan plan included adjusted pricing parallel to the consumer price index and outlined what percentage of the revenue went to particular park expenses.
Olson said the fund allocated 30 percent to augment state park operations, 10 percent to provide matching grants for municipal parks and recreation projects, 7 percent for nonmotorized trails with smaller percentages to rustic campgrounds in state forests, historic preservation and marketing.
“We sold it as the passport being a 58 percent discount from what residents were paying,” Olson said. “We calculated that we needed 17 percent participation on 7.4 million vehicles to break even with where we were.”
When the program was inaugurated, information was forwarded to residents with car registration renewal information. The question was would the volume of annual passes sold generate more money than fewer passes at the higher rate?
The first year was a big success, with a 24.7 percent participation rate. This year, the goal is to get 28 percent participation by the end of the fiscal year in September. Michigan hopes to maintain an annual 30 percent participation.
The $10 fee went up to $11 in its second year and Olson expects it to hit $12 next year based on the state of the economy.
The state produced no special stickers for cars opting for the Recreation Passport. Instead, participants were designated with a letter “P” on the license plate stickers they attached to their license plates.
At Michigan’s 102 state parks and recreation areas, park personnel don’t spend time checking every car that passes through main gates to see that they have the letter P on their license plate stickers.
Residents are entrusted with an honor system on admission. When vehicles are parked at campsites or boat ramps, rangers check for the passport designation during routine patrols and will give the owners of noncompliant vehicles the opportunity to pay the regular admission rates. Violators can be written a $100 citation.
When word of Michigan’s success spread, Olson was invited to address park personnel and lawmakers in Idaho.
Idaho, which saw its state park funding decline by 80 percent at the peak of the recession, replaced its $40 season pass with a $10 passport good for admission to the state’s 30 parks. New passports have generated more than $1 million in Idaho, where 95,800 people bought the $10 passports compared with 15,000 who purchased the $40 annual passes.
In Nevada, Johnson is encouraged by what he’s seeing in those states and is considering pitching the idea to state lawmakers who would have to amend existing laws or draft new ones to develop a similar system in the state.
Nevada’s state park pricing is more complicated than those in Michigan and Idaho. Nevada has different annual fees for different parks. The annual fee for the three units of Lake Tahoe State Park costs users $85 a year. The Valley of Fire annual pass is $75. Owners of an annual pass for the state’s eastern Nevada parks pay $65 and have access to Cathedral Gorge, Beaver Dam, Spring Valley, Kershaw-Ryan and Echo Canyon state parks.
Parks with boating have separate annual fees for the use of boat launches ranging from $100 to $200 a year.
A simplified fee structure appeals to business vendors who take thousands of outdoor enthusiasts on the trail systems in the outer reaches of Valley of Fire because it would create buzz and expand people’s knowledge of an outdoor attraction just over an hour away from the Strip.
Scott Bradford, vice president of operations for Sunbuggy Fun Rentals in Las Vegas, said his company has flourished since opening in 2005. Sunbuggy and other outdoor recreation contractors pay monthly access fees on a quarterly basis to Valley of Fire as well as on adjacent Bureau of Land Management land.
There’s no standard fee; two-year contracts are negotiated based on the number of anticipated customers traveling with the vendor.
Bradford has no complaints about the park system’s maintenance of Valley of Fire, applauding the fact that only seven employees manage the 35,000-acre park about 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
“Considering their budget limitations, they do a great job with maintenance,” Bradford said.
He said that if the state were to generate additional revenue with a passport system similar to Michigan’s and Idaho’s, he’d like to see it put into education to move users to respect the natural resources of the area.
“We operate with the philosophy of ‘You pack it in, you pack it out,’” he said. “When you see trash in the area, that’s an education issue.”
Oscar Martinez, owner of Adrenaline ATV Tours, agrees that education would be a worthy investment.
“Your mother doesn’t work here so if you pack it in, you need to pack it out,” Martinez said.
But Martinez and Bradford offer evidence that a state passport system may not be as successful in Nevada as it is in other states.
Bradford said about 95 percent of his clients are tourists. Martinez said his ATV tours include picking up customers at their hotels for a five-hour adventure in the desert.
With so many visitors to Valley of Fire coming from Europe and Asia, would a voluntary visitor passport for residents provide the same revenue boost as it does in Michigan and Idaho?
It all depends on how dedicated Nevadans are to their parks and whether they would buy park access when they renew registration on their vehicles.
The state may get an indication of how popular its parks are June 14 when admission to all state parks is free for the day.
“It’s hard to tell how successful this might be,” Johnson said. “We’ve just begun looking at it and it sounds like a great idea, but we have to do a lot more research before we can determine how well it would work here.”
Contact reporter Richard N. Velotta at email@example.com or 702-477-3893. Follow him on Twitter @RickVelotta.