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Martin Peterson was the state budget director in the 1980’s and has worked with various Idaho governors over the years on budgets and state parks. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in October of 2013.
What’s your take on the state of Idaho’s parks?
Would you say that support of state parks is a Republican or a Democrat issue?
2009 budget meeting with four governors [Courtesy Jon Hanian]
What are some of the issues or stumbling blocks that make the funding of state parks so difficult for governors?
So I think all too often they have just been overlooked; and then in good times occasionally they have done well. I think under Governor Kempthorne, for example, they were able to deal with a number of their deferred maintenance issues, but it was a one time deal. It was not a continuing thing. The department is now working on trying to develop some dedicated funding sources coming into it, which I think is a good idea, but I don’t think it’s ever going to be enough to really meet all the needs of the department. And it’s not unlike the national park system. If you look at things the national park system has had to do to offset some of their budget problems, some of them make you squirm a little bit.
I think the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation has become much more entrepreneurial, which they needed to do. I think there have been some people who have felt that fees and entrepreneurial activities could largely replace state general fund support. While I think those thoughts are well intentioned, I don’t see that happening, because I just think what you’d have to do would be so massive – you’d have to take like, Ponderosa State Park, and put in condominiums and a golf course and that type of thing, which essentially destroys the park.
On the philosophical level, has funding of state parks been a tough sell for some governors and law makers?
I think the governor’s initial thoughts were that some point in time the Department of Parks and Recreation could possibly become fully self sufficient; but it’s one of those things, I think a lot of elected officials have made assumptions when they first took office, and then after they are on the ground for a while, they discover the real world may be a little different than what their original vision was, and I think that happened with Governor Otter.
I think one of the things that hit real close to home with Parks director Nancy Merrill has been Eagle Island State Park. They put together a business plan that depends to a great extent on their ability to sell gravel from Eagle Island to contractors; and the bottom kind of fell out of the construction industry, and as a result I think that model hasn’t worked as well as they might have hoped.
Marty Peterson with former governor Dirk Kempthorne
How important have communities and local chambers of commerce been to the viability of state parks?
But there are smaller examples. One example that comes to mind is Winchester State Park. I can remember when Boise Cascade had their mill in Winchester, and it was the principal employer in Winchester. When they announced the decision to shut it down, all of a sudden people in Winchester were saying this town is going to die. And then the state got the idea to take the mill pond after Boise Cascade cleared all their equipment out, and establish a state park there; and that state park, given the population area, is pretty heavily utilized.
Dworshak is certainly the best current example that we have. The department had made a decision to close the park at Dworshak, and the uproar within the community was such that the department finally reversed its decision. I had to respect the department for making that decision in the first place – or the park’s board – because it’s a lot easier for park’s boards to make decisions on acquiring new property for parks than it is to shut them down. I’ve been through that. I went through that in the 80’s with the department and I know how excruciating it was for the board at that time.
Are you talking about Three Island Crossing State Park?
I sat down with the director of the department, and I said you just can’t do that. You’re already underfunded throughout the agency, throughout all of your parks, and to sit down now and make matters worse with all of them makes no sense, when, in fact, you could take care of your problem with the closure of one of the parks.
He said the parks board cannot do that, aren’t going to single one park out and suggest it be closed. I said, how about if I wrote you a letter as state budget director and named the park to shut down and suggest that you do it? He said, you would do that? I said absolutely.
Three Island Crossing
And so I wrote him a letter, and there was method behind my madness. The state senator that covered that area was Wilson Steen, a very conservative state senator, a member of JFAC. And I put together a strategy that would close the park, knowing that Senator Steen would immediately get in touch with me; and I’d pull him in on a strategy that I had to offset some of the funding problems for the department through JFAC and get him to have the “sirloin row” crowd and JFAC support it, and we’d get it taken care of.
So they went ahead and put the cable across the gate down there and closed the park, and within 48 hours I had a phone call from Senator Steen, and he was extremely agitated with what had happened. I said, Senator, there is a solution to this. We’ve put together a solution that we’re going to work through the next session of the legislature, and I want to get your support on it, and we’ll get that park open again. He could not bring himself to support it the next legislative session, so the park stayed closed for a period of time.
What about new parks in Idaho; is that even a good idea?
It seems to me there ought to be a line drawn in the sand that says we can’t establish any new parks or acquire any new land for existing parks without the assurance that we’re going to have the necessary funds available to do what needs to be done without robbing the rest of the system.
That has really not happened. Sometimes they acquire parks because you had some politicos in the area make a push; other times it’s a decision the parks board made, and I think a recent decision the parks board made that I found troubling was the decision to acquire the old mining town of Bayhorse and attach it to Land of the Yankee Fork state park.
I had been involved as the chief executive officer of the state Centennial Commission when the Land of the Yankee Fork was established, because it was established as the state centennial park. A few years ago they acquired the old mining town of Bayhorse, and I had been up there at one point when I was budget director, and there was some talk about acquiring it. And I had a home in an old mining town, Silver City, and I know a little bit about old mining towns, and unfortunately Bayhorse is full of problems. There is a lot of remediation that needs to be done. Buildings are falling down, and the department doesn’t have the resources to do what needs to be done. So, as a result, basically it’s my understanding what we have is a trailer park up there.
Bayhorse [Courtesy Chuck Cathcart]
How close did we come to losing Cataldo as a park?
The biggest drum beater for Old Mission State Park was the late Harry Magnusson. Harry could be very convincing, and Harry put together a group of people, and they worked on pursuing that, and Harry used his political chits, and they have that big new visitor center now. It’s a remarkable facility, and I think if the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation had not obtained that, I’m not sure it would still be standing.
Glade Creek, where Lewis & Clark once camped, almost didn’t become a state park. What’s the back story on that?
So after the centennial, I was off doing other things, and I got a phone call one day from a guy that I had worked with on the Plum Creek effort. He said you should be aware that Plum Creek is trying to log off that section.
The Idaho Humanities Council later that week was having their first ever Boise Dinner for the Humanities, bringing in a national speaker, and the speaker was Stephen Ambrose. So I went to Rick Ardinger, the executive director of the Humanities Council, and I said I’d like to have a meeting with Ambrose while he’s in Boise. In the meantime, I had gotten curious as to who was the lobbyist for Plum Creek and found out the individual was a friend of mine. I called him up, and I said, what would you think if it turned out that one of your clients owned one of the last pristine Lewis and Clark camp sites, and your client is getting ready to log off that camp site? What would be your reaction to that? And he said, you’re kidding; and I said, no, I’m not kidding.
And so I said, we’re having this breakfast with Ambrose; will you come to the breakfast? And so he came, and so I set the stage. I said, do you know anything about a camp called Glade Creek camp? And Ambrose said, 'three different summers I brought my family out, and we camped there. It’s not only historically big, but it’s big with my family.' And I told him what was going on, and his response was, 'I’ve only been famous for two years and I don’t know quite how that works, but you tell me how I can be of some use.'
So the lobbyist for Plum Creek drafted a letter for Ambrose to send to Plum Creek, and I was one of the founding incorporators of the Idaho Heritage Trust; and I went to the Trust, and I said, we’ve got a grand opportunity here. If you guys can do a fundraiser and obtain the money if we get Plum Creek to sell it, you guys can buy Glade Creek Camp, and then you can figure out what is going to happen to it.
The thing went like clockwork. We had a gorgeous fall day, not unlike today. A group of us gathered up on Lolo pass at the camp for the signing over of the deed. Members of the Nez Perce tribe, Governor Batt, the Lieutenant Governor of Montana. Steve Ambrose showed up wearing full Nez Perce Indian regalia, including a white leather Nez Perce Indian jacket and pants, and we had the ceremony.
Anyway, the site got saved, the Forest Service put in an interpretive trail going into it. It’s a great example of how a group of people, including the Parks Department, were able to come together and really save one of the great treasures in Idaho, and I suspect that will happen again.
It does seem like the Parks Department is working hard to become more entrepreneurial.
A good example of that is the network of cross-country ski areas that we have on state Parks lands, and the fact that if you have an ATV or snow machine and you register it, you both license it with the state and you pay a fee that goes to the state Department of Parks and Recreation to take care of things like cross country ski tracks, restroom facilities for ATV-ers, that kind of thing.
I think there is a fair amount of that going on, and I suspect you are going to see more of it. And there is some wiggle room with the department in terms of what it charges for the use of its facilities because it is one of the great bargains.
I have always viewed its number one customer base is Joe Lunch bucket. Joe Lunch bucket has a 15 year old camper and a wife and three kids, and they can’t afford to go to Sun Valley or to San Francisco or whatever, and you load the kids in the camper and you go to the nearest state park. And you’re away from home, and the entire family has a great experience.
I think that’s one of the great reasons for having a park system, and I think you are going to find in the future there’s going to be an even greater usage. Idaho economically isn’t in very good shape. Our wage earners don’t earn much compared to the national average, and they’ve got to look for bargains. And boy, what better bargain than having that state park system out there. And sure, there is probably some room there to add additional types of fees, crank them up, but I think the other thing the department is cognizant of and needs to be cognizant of is you don’t want to get it up to the point that all of a sudden your biggest use constituency can’t afford to go there anymore.
Is there one thing the average voter doesn’t understand about state parks?
I think if the public were more cognizant of those things, they would probably be putting more pressure on legislators and others to be of greater support for the system.
What do you see ten years down the road for state parks?