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Outdoor Idaho

Outdoor Idaho

State of Our Parks

The story of Idaho can be told in its state parks. Each of Idaho's 30 state parks provides a window into the political and social development of Idaho and the West.

From the pristine setting of Glade Creek, where the Corps of Discovery once camped, to the land of the Yankee Fork, where you can still gaze upon the ghosts of frontier mining; from Harriman State Park in the east, reflecting Idaho's rich ranching heritage, to the former naval base at Farragut in the north, Idaho's state parks have a story to tell.

Some of Idaho's parks are the result of enthusiastic private citizens who saw a need. Sometimes that need was protection of cultural values. Often it was an attempt to capture the rush of tourists passing through Idaho to destinations elsewhere.

But in a state famous for its federally administered public lands, Idaho's state parks have had to compete for their place in the sun.

In this hour-long special, we explore the history of the state parks movement in Idaho, how state parks are faring in today’s economy and the value of state parks to Idaho's residents.

State of Our Parks

Idaho's 30 state parks provide a window into the development of Idaho and the West.

Heyburn State Park - Prime bird viewing area in the park. [Courtesy Philip Kuntz]

Featured Parks


Park manager Ron Hise has spent his entire career at Heyburn State Park. “It’s awesome fishing, lots of things to do, lots of things to see, and cool places to explore,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a power boater or a kayaker; we’ve got places for everybody here.”  Hise says this is the park for him.

At the turn of the 20th century, this area was plenty busy. Steamboats and railroads connected the area to Spokane. Idaho's U.S. Senator Weldon Heyburn decided it was a great place for a national park.

There was a problem, however:  it was part of the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation. But Congress was in the process of terminating the reservation system, in favor of giving each tribal member a tract of land.  Senator Heyburn did not want them to be able to choose this particular land. His solution was to introduce a bill to create a national park, thereby officially withdrawing the land around Lake Chatcolet.

He hoped to capitalize on the wealth and traffic of nearby Spokane. The automobile revolution was underway, and the well-to-do were fleeing the cities to find temporary relief in the great outdoors.

His bill, to create Chatcolet National Park, easily passed the U.S. Senate; but it languished in the House of Representatives.  Eventually, though, Congress did allow the state of Idaho to acquire the land, and in 1908 Idaho lawmakers purchased it and named the park after Weldon Heyburn.

The irony is that Senator Heyburn did not like the idea of a state park. He only wanted a national park. In fact, he once argued that state parks “are always a subject of political embarrassment.”

When former Lewiston Tribune reporter Bill Loftus was writing a guidebook on State Parks for Idaho’s Centennial celebration, he brought along his kids. He says it helped instill in them a love of adventure.

“I think that’s really true. If you spend any time in Idaho state parks you do see a lot of families there, and a lot of young kids,” said Loftus. “State parks in Idaho are community efforts, in a way. It’s a comfortable place to go; people have a good time. It’s not like Idaho wilderness, where you really are exposed to a lot of the raw forces of nature. The Parks and Recreation Department staff is really well trained, in my opinion; they are very friendly, very customer service oriented.”

When you visit Heyburn State Park, you may be surprised at all the residences inside the park. Back at the turn of the century, it was not uncommon to lease land in American parks.

 “The unique thing about Heyburn is that we have 167 privately leased cottage sites here in the park,” said park manager Hise; “and a lot of those are in families who have owned those places since the 1930’s. Twenty three of those are actually floating homes that float in a little bay we call Hidden Lake, and some of those float homes have been there since before the park was even created.  We don’t allow people to live here year round. The whole purpose of our cottage leases here is for recreation use only.”

The leases have made Heyburn one of a handful of Idaho parks that is self sufficient. “We make about $500,000 off these cottage leases, so it’s a pretty good source of revenue for the state of Idaho for our department.”

In 1906 a dam on the Spokane River raised the water level, connecting three small lakes – Benewah, Chatcolet and Hidden Lake – to the larger Lake Coeur d’Alene. Perhaps if Senator Heyburn had emphasized the effect of the dam on the St. Joe River, he might have made a stronger case for national park status, or at least national monument status. From above and from below, the effect is bewitching, as the shadowy St. Joe meanders through the lakes that lie within the park boundary.

There are also dozens of buildings on the National Historic Register, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The CCC had a camp here in the 1930’s; the young men actually built much of this park, including a trail that leads to a diverse group of trees:  huge ponderosa pines and doug fir and cedar.  It’s definitely worth the hike.

And there’s a truly remarkable bike trail that runs through this park. It’s a remnant of the original railroad system that connected Heyburn to the outside world. Called The Trail of the Coeurd’Alenes, these 72 miles of smooth asphalt is a unique partnership between the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Union Pacific Railroad, the State of Idaho, and the federal government.

And, for many, it is reason enough to visit Idaho’s first state park.

The Railroad Ranch was the private domain of the wealthy Harriman family; it was their home away from home. At some point in their lives, Roland and Averell Harriman decided they wanted to preserve the ranch, to keep it from being chopped up into subdivisions or resort developments.

It was the late 1950's, and Robert Smylie was Idaho's governor. He had been trying to get Idaho a share of the tourism bonanza that was sweeping the country, but he was getting nowhere with the legislature.

"There were all sorts of road blocks," said Thomas Cox, author of The Park Builders. "People said, oh, that’s socialistic. People said, oh, that costs money. A lot of opposition from the Democrat party at the time because they controlled the state land board, and there were some nice patronage jobs there that they didn’t want to lose."

The Harrimans decided they could work with Smylie.

If northern Idaho's Heyburn Park was an accidental park, this park in eastern Idaho was meticulously planned out, years in advance. But some of it was done in secret, as the Harrimans and Smylie worked out the details.

"It had to be kept sort of secret until the negotiations were nailed down," explained Cox; "and governor Smylie flew off to New York to work out the final details of the agreement. And The Statesman in Boise jumped all over him: 'Oh, he’s always off flying around someplace. He ought to spend more time in the state.' And then, of course, when he came back with the agreement in hand, they quickly changed their tune because this was a multimillion dollar gift and a once in a lifetime kind of an opportunity."

Cox says governor Smylie himself added one stipulation to the deal. "I think he was the one that said, 'hey, put this one in, the requirement that for the donation to become final, Idaho had to have a professional parks department,' which, in spite of Smylie's ten years of effort, it still didn’t really have."

It took a few more years, but by 1965 Republicans had won a comfortable margin in the legislature. That, coupled with park funding through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, gave Smylie what he wanted: a professional parks system free from political patronage.

Parks manager Keith Hobbs has helped move Harriman State Park toward profitability, by renting out many buildings of the original Railroad Ranch. "We have about 27 buildings that all were gifted over to the state of Idaho by the Harrimans when they gave the property to the state. When I first got here, we had maybe two rental facilities. Now we have seven; so it changes the management of the park. But we try to maintain them as best we can, to maintain that little slice of history for Idaho here at Harriman."

At 11,000 acres, Harriman is one of the largest parks in Idaho's park system. There are animals here that you won't find in other state parks, like trumpeter swans and an occasional grizzly bear. The park also boasts eight miles of the famous Henry's Fork, which attracts fly fishermen the world over.

Georgia visitor Peggy Thompson explained what she likes about this park. "We like the laid back way of life here. We like being out in the country and staying in a cabin and cooking together and riding horses and fishing the rivers. We just love the climate. It's wonderful. It's beautiful. We love it."

Park manager Keith Hobbs thinks Harriman's wide open spaces are key to its attraction. "People enjoy that relaxed atmosphere that I think the Harriman’s sought when they came here, that retreat atmosphere. Visitors when they come to the park should be able to say to themselves, 'right now this is where I belong. This is what I should be doing.' If we can provide that experience, it’s a perfect goal to shoot for, in my opinion."

Clear cool waters may be the essence of Thousand Springs State Park.   The park is in the heart of a remarkable geologic area where the Snake River aquifer bursts out of its rocky underground confines.

 “The eastern Snake River plain aquifer is like water in any other system; it likes to flow downhill,” explains geologist Travis McLing. “As a result, the water gets recharged in the northeast part of the plain up around Yellowstone Park and in the highlands, flows downhill towards the Snake River; and so water is then released from the aquifer because the Snake River has actually eroded itself down into the aquifer itself.”

This park is comprised of a number of separate areas: a total of nine units featuring volcanic landscapes, historical sites and outstanding water displays. From Malad Gorge and the Kelton Trail along interstate 84, to the Billingsley Creek and Vardis Fisher units near Hagerman, to Ritter Island, Bonnieview, Box Canyon, and Niagara and Crystal Springs along the Snake River –  it really is an impressive collection.

“Thousand Springs State Park got its name because every one of the parks has springs running through it,” explains park manager Dave Landrum, “either out from under the ground or from the canyon walls.

“The State Parks are there to help preserve those springs, protect them, and to educate the public and make it a place where the public can come and enjoy their own properties.”  

The 2,000 acre park got its start back in 1970, with the purchase of Malad Gorge. This deep and narrow canyon was cut by one of Idaho’s shortest waterways, theMalad River.  It features dramatic, steep cliffs and a sixty foot high waterfall.

Not far downstream from the waterfall, the murky waters of the Malad River begin to clear, cleansed by the huge volume of springs flowing into the river.   About a million acre feet of ground water a year emerge from springs near the canyon floor.

“If you look at the color of the water coming down out of the waterfalls and as you move down through the park,” says Dave Landrum, “you can see how the water gets cleaner and cleaner; and that is the amount of springs that are coming out underground into the river, and so by time it gets from the waterfall to the river, it is crystal clear.”

 After Malad Gorge, the next areas added to the park were Niagara and Crystal Springs.  The impressive springs at Niagara flow at 250 cubic feet per second and were declared a National Natural Landmark in 1980.

“Crystal Springs has that 58 degree water coming down into it and it gets stocked by the Fish and Game, and it’s a real popular area for the locals to fish,” said Landrum.

More recently, several new units were added to the park, including Box Canyon, Billingsley Creek, and Vardis Fisher. 

Fisher, one of Idaho’s most famous authors, spent nearly twenty five years living and writing near this beautiful spring and pond.   The remnants of his home are now part of the park.

“You can just hear the water running from the sides of the cliff down through the pond,” said Landrum, “and he had a view that was unreal. I imagine that really helped with his creativity, having that kind of atmosphere.”

One of Fishers famous novels,  Mountain Man, was the source for the movie “Jeremiah Johnson.”  No doubt Fisher would have appreciated a recent gathering at nearby Billingsley Creek Park.  The 240 acre former ranch near Hagerman made a great rendezvous site for the southern Idaho muzzleloaders association.

 Todd Miller is one of the modern mountain men. “We came here to the state park to have a good open area. The fur trappers congregated in big flat meadows, and this was a good flat area for us for rendezvous. It made it easy access for people to come see us.  This is our first year in here, and we’re hoping to be the first of many.”

Another big addition to this park was the Earl M. Hardy Box Canyon unit. Box canyon is the nation’s eleventh largest spring. It gushes water at over 2,600 gallons a second.  You can look down on the aqua blue springs from an overlook less than a mile from the trailhead. But you have to hike a bit further through much steeper terrain to reach the bottom of the canyon and the 20 foot waterfall.

 The Nature Conservancy of Idaho played a key role in bringing both Box Canyon and Billingsley Creek parks into the state system.  They also donated the Ritter Island and Bonnieview areas on the Snake River to the state.

“Ritter came into the park units in 2006, and it was given to us by the Nature Conservancy. Along with that was a million dollar endowment fund,” explained Landrum. “We use that endowment fund just off the interest to help support Ritter Island and Bonnieview, since they were all one unit at one time. That’s a real plus with the budget.”

For more than three decades Ritter Island was owned by Minnie Miller. She ran a Guernsey breeding farm and dairy on the island, beginning in 1918.  Nearby Minnie Miller Falls bears her name.

“The Minnie Miller Springs that is down there is one of only two of the springs that I know of personally along the Thousand Springs Byway that comes straight out of a mountain and flows naturally into the river,” says Landrum. “Everything else goes through a fish hatchery or a power plant.”

 Geologist Travis McLing believes the Thousand Springs complex is world-class. “It represents to my knowledge  one of the very largest spring areas in the entire world. It’s quite humbling to see the volume of water. It’s very difficult to quantify in terms of our finite minds how much water day in and day out, year after year, millennia after millennia has flowed through the system and will continue to flow through the system long after we’re gone.”

To look at it today, you’d never know this was once the largest city in Idaho, and the world’s second largest naval training center.

When you visit Farragut state park, named after the first admiral in the U.S. Navy, plan to spend some time catching up on the history you probably never learned in school.

“First of all, no one expects to see a navy base in the middle of the Rockies,” explains John Mackay, one of the park volunteers. “The reason for that was, before we were actually involved in the war, there was a lot of fear that the Japanese would actually attack the west coast of the United States; and for a while that was a distinct possibility.”

Military veteran John Mackay is one of a handful of volunteers who keep the museum open to the public. Without volunteers, the museum would have to close. Mackay has studied up on what Farragut meant to America during the Second World War. “The navy knew that they were going to have to have an explosive expansion of ships. There were less than 900 ships in the active navy before Pearl Harbor. When the war ended, we had over 4,200 ships. You have to have a lot of sailors. This base in 30 months produced just under 300,000 sailors.”

Seventy years ago the museum building was the brig, or the jail. And it’s pretty much all that’s left of the massive base that once comprised the largest city in the state.  At one time there were 776 buildings, 35 miles of roads, and about 50,000 sailors and support staff.

The recruits arrived here from all over the country, from the inner city of New York to the corn fields of Iowa. Their average age was 17, and many of them had never seen the ocean.  They trained here for about six weeks, part of that time on Lake Pend Oreille, the deepest lake in the state.

Mackay explains what a typical day would have been like for a sailor. “Their days would have been long, would have been tiring, would have been a mixture of classroom, practical experience, marching and knot tying, and signal flags. Aboard ship you can’t use radios when you’re out at sea. You have to have other ways of communicating. You need carpenters, you need diesel mechanics. The list goes on and on. But first you have to have a cohesive force that can be trained to do other things. You have to learn discipline, and you do that by marching, by calisthenics to get in to shape.”

Not only did Farragut play a vital role in the war effort, it also helped convince lawmakers that Idaho could really benefit from a state parks system. Actually, it was the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts that did that. Governor Smylie invited them to hold their annual gatherings at Farragut. In 1967 the World Boy Scout Jamboree convened here, 17,000 scouts from around the world.

 “Farragut has actually not only satisfied what governor Smylie was looking for,” explains park manager Randall Butt; “but Farragut went beyond that and satisfied what our current government is looking for; and that is, how can state parks be as self supporting as possible?”

In order to survive, state parks now have to generate a significant portion of their own revenue. “If you aren’t providing the services people want, then you aren’t going to generate the revenue, because people don’t come back.”

In 2012, more than 400,000 people visited Farragut; it’s a number that suggests people are coming back. “We’re full for 12 weeks out of the summer. If you want to come stay at Farragut, you don’t show up at our doorstep at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. You make a reservation nine months ahead.”

During the summer months, Farragut is the 30th largest city in the state. “On the average we have a population of about 1,600 people a night in the park. We are a city during that time, and so we’re providing all those services. When I came here 10 years ago, our revenue was around $300,000 a year. We’re just under a million dollars now, so we’ve pretty much tripled it in ten years.”

Farragut State Park has enough space and enough activities that it can actually help bring families closer together. “When people ask, what is the value of Idaho state parks, I say the best value is you get rid of the electronics that drive families to be individuals rather than a family anymore. While they are here, they’re a family. The unit is strong; they’re interacting with each other. They’re sharing an experience, and when they leave, they take that with them. The value of Idaho state parks is making the community that much stronger.”

They are glimpses of mining’s glory days, reminders of boom towns and the rush for riches that gave Idaho its start. These weathered remnants, located in central Idaho near the town of Challis, are now part of a state park that helps tell the story of Idaho’s frontier mining heritage.

“The Land of the Yankee Fork state park is a very diverse and multi-faceted area,” explains park manager Darrell Hopkins. “The footprint of the park itself is relatively small. That includes the interpretive center just south of the town of Challis and also the town of Bay Horse. With a cooperative agreement with the Forest Service, the BLM and others, park staff actually manage quite a large area.”

The park is part of the larger land of the Yankee Fork historic area, a region that witnessed decades of mining.  It started with prospectors panning in the streams; it then progressed to the construction of towns and huge mills. Years later it continued with the use of a sophisticated dredge. 

Today, park staff help manage a number of the historic sites, including the old mining towns of Bonanza and Custer.  They’ve worked closely with the forest service to put on a popular annual event.

 “Custer Days is basically just a celebration of some of the history of the area as well as some of the old skills that people used historically,” said Russ Camper, with the Forest Service. “It started about 15 years ago. The credit for it would actually have to go to the state, who we partner with in our management here. The park manager at that time thought, let’s do a little celebration. We started off just doing some really simple things for a couple of days. It took off from there, and every year it’s gotten a little better and a little better.”

Loretta Sherrets is an interpretive guide with the park. “I just love the history.  It’s a big part of Idaho. It’s why people came here; it’s why people settled here.  I love being able to touch and see things that people from the 1800’s touched and lived with every day. I’m always amazed at what they could build; they built some pretty amazing buildings and they’re still standing today. They are over 100 years old. 

“The Bay Horse mill is one of the last remaining mill buildings standing in Idaho; so it’s a treasure because so many of them have fallen down. And then we also have the Wells Fargo building, one of the only remaining stone buildings in town that was probably used as the assayer’s office and probably a bank.

“Ramshorn and Skylark were basically bunk houses with tram systems so they would do the mining and then the tram systems would head down the mountain, eventually ending up at the Bay Horse mill. They’re just massive buildings that are basically built on a hillside, and that in itself is amazing that they’re still there."

But there’s more to the park than buildings and artifacts in Bayhorse, Bonanza and Custer. The state park staff also helps with the management of hundreds of miles of back roads and ATV trails.

“The ATV trails tie in beautifully,” explains Darrell Hopkins. “There’s the Lombard trail which starts at the interpretive center itself. People can off-load their ATVs there and head up the hills behind the interpretive center and they can drop down into Bay Horse and other sites while still on their ATVs. And a lot of the trails that the ATVs can go on are old mining roads and old mining trails that the miners would have used in the 1800’s; and so it’s a really nice area where the ATVs and current recreational opportunities can tie into the historical nature of the park itself.”

History is one reason this park exists today.   Another is Ernie Lombard. The legislature liked his idea to make Bayhorse Idaho’s state Centennial Park.   But when the purchase of the town site fell through, the state instead built the interpretive center.   But Lombard never gave up on his original dream.  “Personally I hadn’t given up on the idea of Bayhorse being saved as a state park,” said Lombard; “the mining company had a change of mind a few years later. The problem is they spent the money that they had for the visitor’s center, and now we had no money to build Bayhorse; plus one of the original problems was that they were buying a contaminated mine site. I went to the Department of Environmental Quality and EPA and asked them for help on bended knee. They got on board.”

They helped him come up with a plan and grants that would make the site safe.  And with more than five hundred acres surrounding the town as part of the deal, Lombard also got the off-road vehicle group to literally buy into the Bayhorse concept.

“For funding we put together a package where we actually used off-road vehicle money to buy Bayhorse,” said Lombard. “The reason we were able to do that, Bayhorse is a very unique setting and a wonderful place to come and to ride your ATV’s and trail bikes. It’s a fantastic site. I couldn’t be more excited to have it actually turn out as a state park.

“It still gets me teared up to think about it, because, you see, it’s a lot of hard work, and never giving up I guess can pay off, if you just keep at it, and you really believe in what you’re doing. This is our history. They might look old and dilapidated and falling down but that’s part of the mystique and that’s part of the charm. And that’s why they are valuable; that’s why we had to save something. Not only does it have the history but it has fantastic scenery.

"I maintain this is one of the most beautiful parks we have in the entire state park system of 30 parks.”

Nestled in the Selkirk mountains, about 30 miles from the Canadian border, is a body of water that some might argue is Idaho’s most beautiful lake.  You won’t get any argument from Lonnie Johnson on that point. He still remembers the first time he laid eyes on Priest Lake.

“Yes. It was like I’m in paradise,” said Johnson. “The mountains, the lake, the pine trees, yeah, I felt like I had just won the lottery.”

In fact, he worked hard to become the manager of Priest Lake State Park. “This has always been my dream park. When I came here in 1984, I got on a greyhound bus in Minnesota, came out here for the job interview, landed a job at $4.23 an hour, and I said some day I would love to be the park manager here. And through all those years of learning and experiences, my dream came true 26 years later.”

Priest Lake State Park consists of three different units, miles apart, much of it land once administered by the state’s Department of Lands. Dickensheet is the smallest unit, the first one you see as you drive to Priest lake, and it’s along Priest River.

More than 20 miles away, at the other end of Priest Lake, is the much larger Lionhead unit. This is where, almost a hundred years ago, the young actress Nell Shipman set up her film studio. She wanted to add realism to the Hollywood silent movie business. At Priest Lake she could focus on the themes that mattered most to her: her love of nature and wild animals.

The heroes in Shipman’s films were always women; and she loved filming “on location.”  She actually made a few movies here before discovering that the realism of Priest Lake was just a little too much for her and her menagerie of animals, and she was forced to return to civilization. 

But it is at Indian Creek, half way between Lionhead and Dickensheet where most of the people come to recreate. Here there’s a visitor center, 93 campsites -- twice as many as Lionhead -- and lots of activities. There’s even wi-fi, and a place for Fido unleashed.

“We take reservations nine months in advance,” said Johnson, “and out of all 30 parks in Idaho, Priest Lake reserves full first; so it pretty much becomes its own little town here. If I could sum this whole park up, it is full of memories. People come here, and they make memories.”

One of the reasons families feel connected to this park is because, even when things don’t go as planned, you always know someone has your back.  Take, for example, the freak wind storm in July of 2012. “It was instant, said Johnson. “We estimate the winds at over 60 miles an hour. Trees were coming down instantly left and right.

“The unique thing about park employees is when others are running from danger, we’re the ones to protect you, we’re the ones running in. So park staff instantly ran into the campground and notified all the campers.

“We had a full campground both at Indian Creek and Lion Head. I remember running in there informing as many campers as I could that you need to get to an open area right now. People were trying to put away lawn chairs and tie things down; and it was like, No, you need to leave now. Trees were coming down everywhere. People were crying and screaming. We got the camp ground emptied out; people went either to our beach area, or the headquarters at the park.

“I remember doing my last rounds, and I saw this van; and I could tell that the windows were fogged up, so I beat on the window, and it cracked down a bit, and there was a man in there. I said, ‘Sir you can’t be here. Trees are coming down.’ He goes, ‘but my van is blocked in, and I have three children.’

“I said, you need to come with me right now. So he goes, ‘can you take one of my children?’ So I grabbed the child, and the mother and the father each grabbed a child. We headed right for the beach, and just by our beach is a large CXT bathroom; and there were people there yelling, ‘we’re here!’ So I passed them off to them as we kept running around making sure there wasn’t anybody else in the camp sites. And then we found the cars that had been smashed. So we’re looking in the cars and people would yell, ‘they’re not in there; they’re fine.’

“I don’t believe the wind lasted maybe a half hour, and it was over; but the destruction left was amazing. It was like a bomb just went off. We had a base up at our headquarters, where we could radio back and forth to make sure everyone was fine. We made every camper check in with us, to make sure everyone from their group was accounted for.

“The power was out, so we had visitors up to our office. We had a large barbeque grill and cooked food for people.  We thought campers would be leaving left and right, but we have the best campers in the Idaho Parks Department. They said, ‘we’re here on our vacation. What can we do?’

“We had people raking. We had people helping us run chain saws and hauling brush. It was amazing. In fact, through all of this, we still had people who informed us that they asked their children where did they want to have a vacation this year. Was it Disney Land or Priest Lake? And they said, ‘we want to go back to Priest Lake.’

“So even through all that, this is where people wanted to come.  It’s your basic blue collar working people, coming here to relax, to enjoy themselves, and to build their own memories here.”

For water skiing buddies Rick Fereday and Mike Pederson, there’s no place better than Payette Lake and Ponderosa State Park.  “I’ve been waterskiing all my life, since I was five,” said Rick Fereday. “In fact, I learned to ski on Payette Lake. It’s something I’ve done all my life. The best day skiing is no other boats on the water, with just a slight bit of a ripple, and a nice warm sun at your back, just ripping and ripping.”

More than half a million visitors enjoy Ponderosa State Park each year. As early as the turn of the 1900’s, tourists came to the shores of Payette Lake, to camp and enjoy the scenery. And by 1905, the locals asked the state legislature to protect the stands of timber and the area around the lake.

In 1906 the Idaho Legislature passed a resolution to make the land around Payette Lake a state park; that means that Ponderosa State Park has an even longer park history than Heyburn, Idaho’s first state park. And by 1918 another resolution forbade timber harvesting along Payette Lake.

“That’s why you still see these 250 to 350 year old ponderosa pines in the park,” said Ponderosa Park manager Richard Taupin. “It’s amazing that people long ago had a vision that this could be valuable to the state of Idaho.”

Taupin says Ponderosa State Park is to McCall what Central Park is to New York City. “We’re their playground.” He has spent his career watching the park grow and protecting that vision. One of the dangers, of course, is fire.

“Fire itself is always a threat to a forested park, especially since this is a fire dependent forest. These are forests that typically had fire frequencies of 25 years or less.”

Part of Ponderosa State Park lies within the McCall city limits, which Taupin sees as an advantage.  It gives folks easy access to the park, even when it snows. That makes Ponderosa a park for all seasons. From the remoteness of the cliffs overlooking the lake, to the ease of upscale cabins, there is something for everyone.

“The park in the winter is so different than in the summer. We get an average of 175 inches of snowfall in the winter. And we’ve seen it go all the way up to 300 inches of snowfall. We get a lot of snow.”

The park offers 12 miles of groomed cross country ski trails for all skill levels, and almost three and a half miles of designated snowshoe trails.

Says Taupin, “My best time is a full moon night, when I’m out grooming, and it’s fresh snowfall. It just glistens.”

[Courtesy Missi Gregorius]

Interviews


Nancy Merrill is the director of the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in October of 2013.

The budget for state parks has been squeezed in recent years. What is the department doing to raise more money for parks?

We’ve had to change our whole philosophy; instead of just being a totally service oriented agency, taking care of the resources, we’ve really had to focus on how we can generate revenue to stay alive and keep these parks open for all Idahoans.

So one of the ideas we have floated is our new Idaho State Parks passport. Before the passport, we had a $40 annual pass. We dropped those passes down to $10. That would allow more people to purchase them at the time they register their cars. This has been really successful. We’re in our first year, and to date we have done over a million dollars worth of sales. So while we haven’t reached the target, we think in another year we will reach that target.

This is new money; we’ve also increased our fees and along with our fee increases, we’ve actually increased our overall revenue of new money by $2.9 million dollars. This will have a great impact on how we can keep these parks open. 

What would constitute success, in your estimation?

Success will be when we have enough staff in our parks to where we’re not wearing people out, and when we have enough money to fund our deferred maintenance, so that our projects that need to be repaired can be repaired, and we can really just enjoy taking care of our customers and our natural resources.

You appeared before the legislative budget committee in 2013, seeking additional revenue. How were you treated?

The one thing that is very clear to me is that our lawmakers understand how important parks are to Idahoans. We saw that when we were on the edge of nearly closing some of our parks. Parks not only impact people, but they impact the economic development in communities; we were seeing millions of dollars placed in sales tax from the sales of pop or beer or gas or equipment from people who are recreating, and they are spending those dollars in those communities; and even though we’ve been pinched, we do feel their support and they are looking at efforts and ways to help us out.

Some folks believe that no state money should go towards parks, that folks should pay to play. Can you make the case that state parks should be funded with public money?

State parks are a service organization. They’re an agency that serves the public. We take care of the land and the natural resources. We were never meant to be a money maker as far as the business type goes. We’re very much the same as transportation or our schools. We provide a service; and so tax payer dollars that go into state parks are just a fraction of what it takes to run a park.

That’s why we have the user fees, and we’ve raised our fees to just about max. In our campgrounds we’ve taken the adage of looking at the premier sites like a hotel or motel does. Those cost a little bit more; if you have more services, or they’re in a special location, you pay a little more for that. If you just want to go group-camp and put a tent out and bring the boy scouts or cub scouts to do that, those are less. So we have all kinds of price ranges for everyone; and so everyone should feel that they are welcome there. Plus, our day use now is either $5 at the gate or $10 if you have an annual pass. It’s pretty affordable.

Our parks are divided into three areas, if you will. We have the cultural/historic, and we have the recreation, and we have the natural parks. Harriman State Park, for example, that is both partly historic as well as a nature reserve, will never have the camping fees because we don’t offer camping in those areas; so they’ll never be able to provide enough money to self-sustain that park. Farragut State Park up north has a lot of camp grounds and a lot of opportunities to charge fees and to be self sustaining.

Some of our other partnerships are with the Army Corp of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, of which we have some cost shares that help sustain those. If we’re looking at self sustaining, we probably will never be self sustaining completely. I think we’re going to be able to support ourselves in a manner that we can, but I think we’re always going to need a little help.

What don’t people understand about their state parks?

I don’t think that some folks realize how close these parks are to their homes, and how available they are for them to actually visit. Sometimes people don’t realize a state park is right in the heart of a community, and they are welcome, and they could come and spend a lot of quality time there.

The other thing I don’t think they realize is the diversity in the parks. You could go down to Bruneau Dunes Park and sled all day or stay and watch the stars at night; or come to Eagle Island State Park and have a picnic here and play in the lake; or go up to Lucky Peak State Park.

They are so diverse. If a family really wanted to have an adventure, they could visit all 30 state parks and really have a great adventure. For example, Bruneau is one of those parks that, in the heat of the summer, you don’t have a huge visitation, but towards the fall, people love to go there. The dunes are a little cooler, and the nights are a little clearer, and it’s a beautiful park. If you’ve never been to Bruneau Sand Dunes you need to have that experience. They have a big fishing derby, and there are all kinds of places to ride, and it’s just one of those little secrets that a lot of people haven’t found yet.

That observatory -- to spend an evening on a really dark night with the stars up there, and to hear Otto talk about the stars and the stellar constellations is amazing. It’s an experience we all should take advantage of, and especially if you’ve got grandkids; you need to take them out to see that.

What is the connection between local communities and state parks?

When we were faced with closing Three Island Crossing or Thousand Springs, the economic development people came out, and their business leaders came out, and the people came out and said, this means a lot to us; and even though there wasn’t a huge visitation there, it meant a lot to that community.

I just had a little store call the Governor’s office recently and say, because there’s nobody down in a campground where we’d lost some power, it was hurting his fudge business. So it has impact even on the tiniest level to the business people within a community.

How do you know people like the services they receive in Idaho’s state parks?

Every day I get letters from people who absolutely are in love with whatever park they have been to. I just got one from Ponderosa State Park, from a group of people In RV’s who had been up and hadn’t been there before, and they just had nothing but nice things to say.

The most important thing that they are telling me is the service they receive from the staff, and somebody has gone out of their way to make someone else’s day; it’s an experience that they will never forget. We had a ranger that had a gentleman who was wheelchair bound, and he wanted to go do some sightseeing, so he helped him get in the truck and took him around sightseeing. Going the extra mile.

Ten years out,  what do you see as the future of state parks?

What I would like to see, and what I think I might see are two different things. I would love to see us be able to acquire more land, protect the land for our future and for the legacy of our future generations. I think as development occurs across Idaho, if we don’t protect and preserve and conserve some of this land out here that is available now, we’ll never have another chance to do that.

So I would hope that we are foresighted enough that we will go out and try to acquire some more land, even if we can’t develop it right now. But in the meantime, I think that we have a can-do attitude in Idaho state parks, and that has been evident as we’ve had to shift our gears and turn our ship into making revenue and keeping our parks alive. Our staff has come up with some incredible ideas, and they are dedicated, and so I can see that our state parks are going to continue on the same path they are today. You are going to see beautiful parks, well taken care of, with perfect staff.

Are any parks going to close?

Not if I have anything to say about it. We’re going to do the best that we can to keep them open, and we’re going to strive to do so.

Thomas Cox is a retired professor and the author of The Park Builders. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in the summer of 2013.

In terms of state parks, how does Idaho differ from, say, Oregon and Washington?

The parks in Oregon, Washington and Idaho were the ones I mostly focused on; and the histories of the three were quite different because the three states are quite different. There’s no one pattern, but in all three, key individuals provided the momentum.

Sometimes they were public officials; sometimes they were people in the private sector, but it’s something that doesn’t come from the technocrats and the governmental officials.  It comes from, in a way, the middle class grass roots. There is a lot of involvement of service clubs and groups like that, too.

And of the three states, Idaho is the most conservative in how it runs parks?

Then and now.

One of the people you focused on was Idaho Governor Robert Smylie. What were your impressions of him?

He was an impressive guy, fun to interview, but a bull dog. He spent over 10 years trying to get a state park system established in Idaho. And there were all sorts of road blocks. People said, oh, that’s socialistic; people said, oh that costs money. A lot of opposition from the Democrat party at the time, because they controlled the state Land Board, and there were some nice patronage jobs there that they didn’t want to lose. So opposition came from a lot of places; and he, bit by bit, built up support, and here we are.

Harriman State Park, where we’re conducting this interview, played a key role in finally establishing a park system, didn’t it?

Very much so. The Harriman family had owned Railroad Ranch here --     which is now Harriman State Park -- for years and years. Young Averell and Rowland Harriman spent a lot of time out here; and they loved this place. As they were getting older, they couldn’t stand the idea of it being chopped up into sub-divisions or resort developments; so they were looking for a way to have it saved like this.

They were torn between the federal government or the state of Idaho; and they were impressed with some of the work the state of Idaho had done, and Fish and Game, on the Henry’s Fork. So they opted to give the land to Idaho, but it all had to be kept secret until the negotiations were nailed down.

Governor Smylie flew off to New York to work out the final details of the agreement. And the Statesman in Boise jumped all over him; “oh, he’s always off flying around someplace. He ought to spend more time in the state.” Then, of course, when he came back with the agreement in hand, they quickly changed their tune, because this was a multi-million dollar gift and a once in a lifetime opportunity.

But it came with strings attached, right?

Oh yeah, which I suspect was an idea that originated with Smylie. I think he was the one that said, hey, put this one in: the requirement that, for the donation to become final, Idaho had to have a professional parks department, which in spite of Smylie’s ten years of effort, it still didn’t really have.

So the legislature voted to accept the gift, but they still hadn’t created a professional parks department. So it’s sort of an empty vote in a way, and that was one more piece in the momentum that Smylie had been building, and finally the legislature voted.

By that time Smylie’s party had a majority in both houses of the legislature, so they were able to get it through and the gift became final.

But then the parks department spent some years studying this place to figure out how to use it so that it wouldn’t be overused, wouldn’t be destroyed. A lot of the meadows are very fragile eco-systems, and they wanted to make sure that when they started to administer it, they would administer it responsibly.

Those were impressive years for a brand new organization. They brought in really quality people, and that’s always the secret. But they also listened to the local folk, who knew the land and knew the needs and the problems in ways that the professionals might not if they came from some other area.

Harriman is one of the premier state parks in the country. Not just in Idaho, in the country, because the Harrimans and Smylie and the original park department were all committed to keeping it special and did a marvelous job.

That local connection really gets at the heart of this whole notion of state parks, it seems.

Oh yeah. Most of the visitors are local, but you go to the parking lot and there are an awful lot of out-of-state license plates, too. That was part of what Smylie had argued all along. He said Parks are good business. 

Tourism just boomed after World War II, and Idaho wasn’t any more prepared than anybody else; and it was troubling that all these people were going through from Yellowstone to the Pacific Coast, and Idaho was just a highway enroute.

Smylie said if we can get them to stay a day or two, that’s money in the bank. So you need parks that are big enough, attractive enough, special enough to attract and hold people for a while, and Harriman is one of those. There are others, too, of course.

That’s part of that post-World War II tourist boom. People came out of World War II with a lot of savings and pent up desire to travel and see things. During World War II posters were all around – Is this trip really necessary? The 1950’s saw the reverse side of the coin. Yes, this trip is necessary; and this is part of what Smylie wanted to catch, the Idaho share of the tourist trade.

Part of his strategy in trying to convince Idahoans that this was a possibility was getting first the Girl Scouts and then the Boy Scouts World Jamboree to be held at Farragut State Park in north Idaho. Ten thousand girl scouts came, then 12,000 boy scouts came, and that got the attention of all sorts of people who said, hey, there’s money in them thar hills.

The idea that state parks are favored by Democrats was not really true back then, was it?

It wasn’t then. Smylie was Republican, but then it was a different Republican party. He was an Eisenhower Republican, which didn’t view the federal government as a boogey man. The problem, Smylie argued, was that too many of the federal officials are too isolated from the grass roots. We needed somebody that can serve as a go-between, so they work from a better basis of local information and knowledge. So it wasn’t, get rid of the federal government; it was, help it to work better. The Democratic Party was a little harder to characterize in the Smylie era; but the park story suggests pretty much a Democrat was more interested in patronage and partisan politics than policy in any larger sense.

Can you make a case that, as soon as Idaho got a parks department, it made a difference?

Yes, it did make a difference in a couple of ways. In the first place, it got it out of the realm of legislative politics; and it became now a question of administering and building, which was a whale of a step forward. But it also was important in that it gave a kind of stamp of approval that the public could rally around. The parks became, for quite a while, a fair-haired boy in Boise and in the larger public.

In a state like Idaho, with so much federally administered public lands, state parks seem to be at a disadvantage sometimes. Why spend money to get into a state park when you can just go to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area?

Idaho’s fortunate. It’s got all these wonderful places – the Sawtooths, the Frank Church Wilderness area – so many of those are places that you have to be pretty fit to get into and appreciate. State parks, by and large, are lower elevation, more accessible; they reach a much broader kind of an audience and serve an educational role for the next generation of kids coming here, field trips and family trips and learning about the out of doors, and that’s something those high mountain areas, much as I love them, can’t really serve in the same way.

Park managers also push this notion of creating memories at state parks.

I would agree 100%, memories that are founded on learning, finding new things, discovery. Another thing that should be kept in mind about state parks is they serve more people every year in the United States than the national parks do, and they do it for far less money.

State parks provide a place – a laboratory is too technical a term – but a special kind of place where people can come, especially young people, and learn about the out-of doors, and come to appreciate a part of the world that maybe they haven’t had much previous contact with. It’s the introduction of a lot of people to the greater outdoors. The next step might be the Sawtooths.

These days state parks seem to be on the chopping block, financially.

Governments are stretched thin, just like you and me financially, so the states cut where they can, and often that means state park budgets. That has forced the state parks to rely more and more on volunteers to fill positions that were filled by professionals and I don’t see anything wrong with that. Quite the contrary, it’s useful because it helps to build a constituency.

When people spend a summer working as a volunteer, they are going to be knowledgeable about it and spread information. They are going to support it in all kinds of ways; so in a sense what parks have done because of the financial problems, is they have gone back to their roots, because it started out with a lot of grass roots efforts.

Do you have a favorite state park in Idaho?

Harriman and Heyburn, and not necessarily in that order. I’m not sure of the order.

Heyburn was in a sense an accidental park. Senator Heyburn introduced into the U.S. Senate a bill to have Heyburn made a national park. It’s a spectacular place. It’s probably as deserving of national park status as a number of other things that were created as national parks at the same time, but Congress wasn’t buying. And so while he was off on some business, an amendment was introduced to allow the state of Idaho to buy the site for a state park. So Idaho was given this license to buy, but they didn’t have any money, so they fished around and they found $11,000 in the Fish and Game fund. And that was about the closest connection they could find with which they then bought Heyburn and made it into a state park and named it after the senator who had wanted a national park, in a kind of irony.

Heyburn Park was always a problem for the state of Idaho. In a sense, they got it before they were really ready, and they didn’t know quite what to do with it. They leased out summer home sites, which proceeded over time to pollute the lake, and so it became a headache in and of itself. And at another juncture they logged it to generate money to run the park. One would say, well, that’s hardly kosher; but that’s the way Idaho came up with the money to run Heyburn.

At one point the Coeur d’ Alone tribe brought suit against the state of Idaho to have Heyburn State Park returned to the tribe, because they said the state had mismanaged it, that they hadn’t used it for park purposes as the enabling legislation had required. And the question became, well, is leasing a summer home site a public park purpose?

The tribe and their attorneys argued, No; but if you look at Glacier National Park, the federal government leased out summer homes, so Idaho wasn’t going off on some wild tangent of its own. They were within the practices at the time.

The upshot of the suit that the Coeur d’Alenes brought was the state had to take steps to manage the pollution from sewage and what-not. I don’t know of any park that has been created in recent years that has summer home sites within it. There may be some. I don’t know of any.

Are there any cautionary last words about Idaho’s state parks?

One thing I’m concerned about – partly because I’ve seen it already begin to happen in some states – is that in the face of budget shortfalls and cutbacks, people will turn to commercializing the parks as a way to generate money to keep them running. That’s a dangerous road to tread. 

Would Harriman be the same if there were a hotel right here, if there were a cafeteria down the road, if there were motels on that point? I don’t think so. Indeed, that’s exactly what the Harriman brothers were trying to avoid. They couldn’t stand the idea of this place being turned into another suburban development. And it would have. It’s too attractive not to have drawn people, and probably the people wouldn’t have been Idahoans, either.  

Also, the challenge is to do a better job with what you’ve got. Not to try to be empire builders. Empire builders tend to get into trouble.

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?

When I was state budget director, it became pretty obvious to me that I don’t think there was any state agency that had a more dedicated, hard working staff than the Department of Parks and Recreation; and I think that continues to this day. It was also one of the poorest funded agencies in state government, considering the breadth of operations that they were in charge of; and I think that still continues.

Would you say that support of state parks is a Republican or a Democrat issue?

I think state parks is something that transcends partisan lives. Certainly in my years of service, Governor Smylie aside, the two biggest champions of state park systems as governors were Governors Andrus and Kempthorne, both who interestingly then went on to become Secretaries of the Interior, which does a lot of that type of thing.

What are some of the issues or stumbling blocks that make the funding of state parks so difficult for governors?

When you have a downturn in the economy and revenues are tight, you try to focus your funding on what I would term critical agencies and critical programs – things like criminal justice systems, certain support programs in the Department of Health and Welfare, that type of thing. And, unfortunately, as creative an agency as Parks is, it really doesn’t rise to the top as being one of those critical agencies.

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?

Absolutely, especially when revenues are tight, it can be a real struggle. I think Governor Otter, when he became governor, initially the state was in pretty good shape revenue-wise; but the governor has a broad background in business and had a great deal of interest in expanding entrepreneurialism in state government.

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.

How important have communities and local chambers of commerce been to the viability of state parks?

I think they are very important. I think we’ve got examples all over the state. Certainly Eagle Island would be an example. Ponderosa and the city of McCall and even the city of Cascade would be an example. And certainly in Cascade itself we have a state park there which I think may be the most heavily used park in the system, on the reservoir up there. I guess we call it a lake now.

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?

Yes. In the mid-80’s during the recession we had done a series of budget holdbacks on state agencies, and Parks was already badly underfunded, but we didn’t exempt them from one of the holdbacks, and they were just going to go across the board throughout the agency.

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.

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?

I think if a significant parcel of property were identified that would be a great addition to the park system, I think it would be relatively easy to put together a lobbying effort to ultimately make that happen. That said, I think it would be unfortunate to see that happen, because any new parks that go into the system without the financial support attached to them are going to become a drain on all of the rest of the system. I think that is something that really is to the detriment of the department as a whole.

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.

How close did we come to losing Cataldo as a park?

Cataldo sat up there and limped along back when the church still owned it – the church or the tribe, I don’t recall which. The state took it over. The building needed a lot of work done to it. It’s the oldest wooden structure in the state of Idaho, and it’s remarkable. It may also be the only large structure in Idaho made with wattle and daub walls, which I think makes it all the more incredible; but there has been a lot of support up in that area for the Mission.

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?

During the state Centennial I tried to talk Plum Creek Timber, which owned the site of Glade Creek, into selling it to the state. The Centennial Commission would have provided the funding, and the Parks Department could have taken it under its umbrella. Plum Creek had absolutely no interest in doing it.

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.

I think they clearly are. I think the current leadership of the department of parks and recreation really is making the best effort it can on being entrepreneurial and trying to identify new funding streams. And that has happened on previous administrations as well.

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?

The biggest thing the average voter doesn’t understand is that the department gets by on a shoestring budget, but you’ve got a lot of deferred maintenance out there. They do the best they can, and the system looks pretty doggone good, by and large, but you don’t see those hidden behind-the-scenes things that cause problems that really need to be addressed.

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?

I think state parks will become increasingly important as time goes by. The population of the state is going to continue to grow. I don’t see a quick fix for the Idaho economy and for the wage structure in Idaho, so I think you are going to continue to have people looking for the best bang for the buck for their recreational dollars, for their vacation dollars, and I think as the public becomes more and more aware of the phenomenal things we have out there – through things like the passport program that the Parks Department has set up – I see nothing but growth in the use of the park system; and I think that will lead it to becoming of greater and greater importance.

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?

When I was state budget director, it became pretty obvious to me that I don’t think there was any state agency that had a more dedicated, hard working staff than the Department of Parks and Recreation; and I think that continues to this day. It was also one of the poorest funded agencies in state government, considering the breadth of operations that they were in charge of; and I think that still continues.

Would you say that support of state parks is a Republican or a Democrat issue?

I think state parks is something that transcends partisan lives. Certainly in my years of service, Governor Smylie aside, the two biggest champions of state park systems as governors were Governors Andrus and Kempthorne, both who interestingly then went on to become Secretaries of the Interior, which does a lot of that type of thing.

What are some of the issues or stumbling blocks that make the funding of state parks so difficult for governors?

When you have a downturn in the economy and revenues are tight, you try to focus your funding on what I would term critical agencies and critical programs – things like criminal justice systems, certain support programs in the Department of Health and Welfare, that type of thing. And, unfortunately, as creative an agency as Parks is, it really doesn’t rise to the top as being one of those critical agencies.

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?

Absolutely, especially when revenues are tight, it can be a real struggle. I think Governor Otter, when he became governor, initially the state was in pretty good shape revenue-wise; but the governor has a broad background in business and had a great deal of interest in expanding entrepreneurialism in state government.

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.

How important have communities and local chambers of commerce been to the viability of state parks?

I think they are very important. I think we’ve got examples all over the state. Certainly Eagle Island would be an example. Ponderosa and the city of McCall and even the city of Cascade would be an example. And certainly in Cascade itself we have a state park there which I think may be the most heavily used park in the system, on the reservoir up there. I guess we call it a lake now.

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?

Yes. In the mid-80’s during the recession we had done a series of budget holdbacks on state agencies, and Parks was already badly underfunded, but we didn’t exempt them from one of the holdbacks, and they were just going to go across the board throughout the agency.

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.

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?

I think if a significant parcel of property were identified that would be a great addition to the park system, I think it would be relatively easy to put together a lobbying effort to ultimately make that happen. That said, I think it would be unfortunate to see that happen, because any new parks that go into the system without the financial support attached to them are going to become a drain on all of the rest of the system. I think that is something that really is to the detriment of the department as a whole.

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.

How close did we come to losing Cataldo as a park?

Cataldo sat up there and limped along back when the church still owned it – the church or the tribe, I don’t recall which. The state took it over. The building needed a lot of work done to it. It’s the oldest wooden structure in the state of Idaho, and it’s remarkable. It may also be the only large structure in Idaho made with wattle and daub walls, which I think makes it all the more incredible; but there has been a lot of support up in that area for the Mission.

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?

During the state Centennial I tried to talk Plum Creek Timber, which owned the site of Glade Creek, into selling it to the state. The Centennial Commission would have provided the funding, and the Parks Department could have taken it under its umbrella. Plum Creek had absolutely no interest in doing it.

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.

I think they clearly are. I think the current leadership of the department of parks and recreation really is making the best effort it can on being entrepreneurial and trying to identify new funding streams. And that has happened on previous administrations as well.

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?

The biggest thing the average voter doesn’t understand is that the department gets by on a shoestring budget, but you’ve got a lot of deferred maintenance out there. They do the best they can, and the system looks pretty doggone good, by and large, but you don’t see those hidden behind-the-scenes things that cause problems that really need to be addressed.

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?

I think state parks will become increasingly important as time goes by. The population of the state is going to continue to grow. I don’t see a quick fix for the Idaho economy and for the wage structure in Idaho, so I think you are going to continue to have people looking for the best bang for the buck for their recreational dollars, for their vacation dollars, and I think as the public becomes more and more aware of the phenomenal things we have out there – through things like the passport program that the Parks Department has set up – I see nothing but growth in the use of the park system; and I think that will lead it to becoming of greater and greater importance.

Ernie Lombard, a retired Boise architect and 18 year member of the Idaho Park and Recreation Board, worked hard to make the Land of the Yankee Fork Park a reality. This interview was conducted by John Crancer near Bayhorse in August of 2013.

How did Bayhorse become a state park?
That’s a long story but I’ll try to do the short version.  The legislature wanted to have something special for the parks as a celebration for our 100 years of statehood. I proposed to the Parks Department to make Bayhorse a state park, because it’s from the same time as Idaho’s history, it was instrumental in the forming of the state, and it happened the same time as statehood. So, it all made sense. They liked the idea; unfortunately, we weren’t able to make the deal right then. It became almost a 30 year endeavor to actually create a state park.

What were some of the challenges?
The legislature gave state parks a million dollars to create the park. When they couldn’t make the deal on Bayhorse, they went ahead and built a visitor center as a fall back in Challis. Later, the owners of the mining company here had an epiphany and decided 10 years later that maybe they should have made a deal with the state, after all. So the owner of the company wrote a letter to state parks, sent it to the visitor center here, and asked if we were still interested in Bayhorse. Everyone thought it was a joke, because he wrote it on a school pad in long hand. It didn’t look like an official letter at all, and yet it was.

We said we’re going to do it differently this time; and we got the Nature Conservancy involved to help negotiate the land purchases. I went to the DEQ and the EPA and asked them for help on bended knee. They thought that was a good idea so they got on board as well.  For funding we put together a package where we actually used off-road vehicle money to buy Bayhorse.  The reason we were able to do that is I went around and visited with all the motorized recreation folks and told them the story. Bayhorse is very unique and it’s a wonderful place to come and to ride your ATV’s, ride your trail bikes, to hike, to ride your horse. I couldn’t be more excited to have it actually turn out as a state park.

Did the agencies help you with grant money?
You can’t ask people to come and walk around a contaminated mine site; and you can’t really let them climb around old dilapidated collapsing buildings. We knew we didn’t have the money to restore the buildings; and we wanted to leave them in the arrested state that they’re in. So the legislature said, okay, you show us how we can make a plan that you can use a site like this, and ask the public to come to it, and have it be safe for the public so the state does not have some implied liability.

So the Department of Environmental Quality stepped up to the plate and said, we can get you some grants to help you with that, and we can help you with some funding to mitigate some of that mining tailings.  One of the attorneys said, all we ever get to do is sue people and put them out of business, and everybody’s mad when they get to the end of the deal, and nobody’s happy, and we don’t make a park or anything. We just make some place safe, and we all leave, and that’s it. They said this is an opportunity to have a positive outcome where people can come and enjoy and learn the history, and see a positive outcome to a contaminated site, and we want to be part of that, and so we want to help you. They really liked the idea of being able to do that. That’s a different approach from attorneys.

How did you get the ATV folks on board?
The problem was that we spent the money to build the visitors center; so now where do you get the money to buy Bayhorse? The mining company had a change of attitude. They said we’re not just going to sell you the town site; we’ll sell you all our property, all 570 acres. That’s a different answer than 80 acres of just the town site.  I knew I had an asset I could take to the motorized crowd.

We have a lot of money in the ATV motorbike fund that comes from them buying off-road stickers. Why don’t we go talk to them, because there’s a fantastic trail system here, and I learned about that system just by riding around exploring.

They thought it was a great idea. And so we had approval to use their money to buy the state park, and to make it an historic site as well as a motorized recreation site. And so it made a nice marriage.

Why was it important to preserve Bayhorse?
I’m a world traveler. I look for ghost towns, and I’ve photographed over 130 ghost towns in Idaho but I’ve also photographed in Cambodia and Machu Picchu in Peru, so these are ghost towns to me.  The thing you have to remember is our built environment in the state of Idaho is very new. We weren’t in any built environment until the miners and the prospectors came, and they were building to supplement their gold rush of the 1860s and 1870s, so prior to that there were no buildings.

What we’re saving now is our Acropolis. We’re saving our coliseum, and we’re saving our temples right here. This is our history. They might look old and dilapidated and falling down, but that’s part of the mystique, and that’s part of the charm. And that’s why they are valuable; that’s why we had to save something, a town somewhere in the state from that period and era, and Bayhorse is the perfect place.

Not only does it have the history, but it has fantastic scenery. As you drive up here to visit Bayhorse, you’re greeted with national park quality landscapes. You don’t get that at every park. I maintain this is one of the most beautiful parks we have in the entire state park system of 30 parks. This is a fantastic site, let alone the history and the story that goes with it. And the back story is what makes the whole thing really work, so that’s why Bayhorse.

What do you see on the ATV trails at this park?
Bayhorse isn’t just the town itself; it’s the mines up on the mountains; there are mill structures and there are tramways, and so you see how the mining actually took place, from the 1800s to the turn of the century. These are spectacular sorts of construction and as an architect, I look at those structures today, and I’m impressed with how innovative and creative those early pioneers were with some of the things they were able to build.

So when you take your ride and you go up and visit all these upper structures, it’s a whole experience. And you can come here and spend two weekends, and a week here in this area, because we’ve got Custer and Bonanza and other sites now, as well as Bayhorse, and the scenery is all spectacular

You can get up on top of Ram’s Horn Mountain and you’ve got a 360 degree view of Idaho, and you can see clear over into the Sawtooths; you can see over into the Pioneers; you can see up into the Lochsa; you can see all over the state. You can see 100 miles or more in every direction. And the sky is clear enough that you can actually see that far, and the scenery is quite an awesome view.

Do you have a feeling of accomplishment when you come back here?
Actually, I’m quite amazed because originally, when I proposed saving Bayhorse, it was an 80 acre town site, and I thought we’d be lucky to have that. But working together in a partnership --  which is an important thing, and that’s one of the reasons I got that Partners in Conservation award from the Secretary of the Interior a few years ago – it was bringing together all the players to the table with a shared vision how to save a historic site, and how to use it and not abuse it, and protect it, and allow people to come and enjoy it.

It still gets me teared up to think about it, because it’s a lot of hard work, and never giving up can pay off if you just keep at it, and you really believe in what you’re doing. I was never paid a dime for any of this. It wasn’t like it was compensation. It was only because I felt a real need to do that, and I have to admit I grew up on a ranch that had a ghost town close by, and I had my own saloon, and I had my own livery stable, and I had my own grocery store and my own hotel. It was like a mile from the house; and I could go there any day and play there, and I did. I became in love with these things at a very young age, so that became a lifelong thing; and as you know, I spent a lot of years photographing ghost towns in Idaho, and that’s like 30,000 images of historic buildings. I felt for a while I can save it on film; but I had this feeling I have to save the real thing, at least some place. I have to work toward that – and if I can’t save the real thing somewhere, I just haven’t gotten it done quite right. Looking around here, and realizing I really did save the real thing, it gets me all choked up.

In general, what’s the value of state parks?
We are part of the natural environment. It’s good for the heart and soul to be out and get exercise and experience. One of the best places is, of course, parks, because parks are hopefully saving some of the best of the best.

It’s a regeneration of the heart and soul, and a regeneration of your inner self. And they’re almost a spiritual thing in a lot of ways; so parks are very much a part of the human environment and the human condition, and without them it would be a great loss.

What’s the difference between state parks and other parks, like city and national parks?
They’re really quite different. The state parks really are out in the natural environment itself. There’s the ability to be at a place like Bayhorse or a lake or a mountain stream. They have that unique ability as a state system, to go to those places, similar to a national system. The state system is more important because it’s close to where people live. It’s close to where they recreate, and so they’re able to do it on a weekend; they’re able to do it after work. And those are the things that state parks give you.  So they’re much more important for the average person than the other system, the national system.

What about the idea of state parks being self-sufficient?
When I first got on the state park board, parks were about 30% self funded and about 60-70% funded by the state legislature. One of the reasons you have board members from the business side of the world is they maybe have a long vision of where politics and the world is going. I could see funding being reduced for parks; as an architect, I’m designing buildings for criminal justice systems and other kinds of systems that are eating a lot of state budgets.

I could see their budget going away, and so I strongly encouraged, and we worked on a lot of ways as a board and as a staff to come more self-sufficient. I’m glad we did, because when the big crunch came a few years ago, and a lot of state parks around the United States were closing because of lack of funding, Idaho did not have to do that because we had made some changes internally.

The concept was that users have to pay, and to a certain extent that’s true. But the fees are nominal, and the users seem very happy to step up to the plate and do that; and a lot of things we do have are free, but some things we do have to charge for. Right now, 98% of state parks funding is self-generating, not legislative.

Talk about the changes you saw in your almost 18 years on the Parks Board.
Before, state parks were a little bit like, we’re here to protect this resource, but not necessarily be so open to the public. I really felt that if it was going to survive, they had to have the public be part of the system, and it’s not just saving it for savings sake. It’s saving it so you can use it, not abuse, and you can come to love it. And that’s a little bit different attitude, and that took a shift in personnel’s attitude, as well, and how they viewed their job. So they realized if they were going to survive long term, that they had to be part of the economics of it as well as the story of it.

So it’s really hard to combine some of those things; and some could adjust, and some couldn’t; and the ones that couldn’t aren’t part of the system anymore.

What does the future look like for state parks?
The future is bright for state parks. I think hopefully, the people who aren’t avid users of our state parks will become avid users. I’m very optimistic that people will do that. The things that are offered within the system are just too compelling to not become even more loved in the future.

I think funding is non-existent; and I’m okay with that, and we’re realistic about that; but you’ve got to make it work, however you make it work, and they are making it work. We’ve got some good leadership there, and some good board members there, and a great staff, and they work hard, and they all love it, and that’s why it keeps on going.

In 1983, the husband and wife historian team of Mary Reed and Keith Petersen wrote a short booklet, Virgil McCroskey: Giver of Mountains. We conducted this interview with the couple in 2013. Petersen is now the Associate Director and State Historian with the Idaho State Historical Society. Reed is the Vice Chair of the Idaho Association of Museums and served as the Executive Director of the Latah County Historical Society in Moscow for 23 years.

What kind of a man was Virgil McCroskey and why did he want to donate the land that became McCroskey State Park to the State of Idaho?

McCroskey grew up on a 640-acre farm at the base of Steptoe Butte in Whitman County, Washington, a farm he would eventually inherit. The ninth of ten children, he received a degree in pharmacy from Washington Agricultural College (now Washington State University) in 1898, and soon purchased the Elk Drug Store in Colfax, Washington. McCroskey never married, though he did raise two nieces and a nephew, orphaned by the death of their parents. In 1944, with his nieces and nephew raised, he retired from the full-time practice of pharmacy and spent the next 20 years traveling the world. He was always interested in parks and the outdoors (he was a charter member of the Washington Outing Club, and took great pride in having climbed the Northwest's highest peaks). From plantings brought back during his world travels, he developed an arboretum around his Whitman County home, featuring more than 60 varieties of trees. "I've always been a worshipper of trees," he once wrote. But he soon realized that he wanted to do something more lasting. "Some folks spend their whole lifetime beautifying an estate," he said. "They spend a lot of money but sometimes all the beauty quickly disappears after they are gone, particularly if the property falls into the hands of someone who has no similar interests." McCroskey, determined to spend the remainder of his life working on projects that would endure, sold the family homestead to finance philanthropic endeavors.

His first project was to acquire the land on the butte that he viewed every day from the family farm. Steptoe Butte is an ancient mountain top of granite, 400 million years old, surrounded by a sea of lava-flow basalt 15 million years old. It is now a National Natural Landmark; indeed the word "steptoe" is the term used by geologists worldwide to describe such ancient mountain tops surrounded by younger rock flows. But in the 1930s, Steptoe Butte was under a patchwork ownership of various land holders, and inaccessible to the public. McCroskey set out on the laborious task of convincing those landowners to sell him their property so that he could preserve the land. He also purchased an 80-acre picnic site at the base. In 1946, McCroskey donated the property-with its spiral road to the top providing one of the most spectacular 360-degree views in the West-to the State of Washington, "for the enjoyment of all the people, forever and ever." Today it stands as McCroskey State Park.

If you stand atop Steptoe Butte and gaze eastward, you will see a beautiful mountain ridge that separates the Palouse country of eastern Washington from the mountainous Idaho beyond. This is where the McCroskey family used to picnic in Virgil's youth. In 1939, at the age of 63 and while in the process of acquiring land at Steptoe, McCroskey began a project that would take him the rest of his life: developing a 25-mile secluded roadway along the crest of the ridge. McCroskey spent thousands of dollars and negotiated dozens of deals to consolidate the land that would allow a person to travel uninterrupted on what he called Skyline Drive in Latah and Benewah Counties. By 1951 he had gained clear title to more than 2,000 acres and had created a spectacular road. He offered this as a gift to the State of Idaho. And Idaho refused.

The Idaho legislature refused to accept his generous gift not once, but several times. Why?
In 1951, McCroskey offered the state 2,000 acres, and was refused. He continued to buy land, and during the 1953 legislative session he offered 2,800 acres, and also agreed to pay the state $500 a year for 15 years for upkeep at the park. Again the legislature refused. In 1955, his offer had increased to 4,400 acres and Virgil himself promised to maintain the park for 15 years. Finally the legislature agreed.

There were several reasons-one might less charitably say excuses-why the legislature declined his earlier offers. Benewah County in 1951 complained about a loss of tax revenue if the land moved out of private ownership-a loss of $178 a year. Others in Idaho questioned the wisdom of a park with a road "luring" tourists out of Idaho and into Washington, since visitors entering the park off of Highway 95 could exit either into Idaho or Washington. There were those who complained about the land's isolation. As the State Land Commissioner noted, "Other areas in the state could be developed for less money and would be of more recreational value."

But essentially, all of the arguments came down to the issue of whether or not Idaho even wanted to have state parks. Although Idaho boasted the first state park in the Northwest (Heyburn), it was one of the last states in the nation without a state parks department. By the 1950s, Washington had 70 state parks; Oregon 140. Idaho had two, but no parks department to operate them. In 1954, Robert Smylie won election as Idaho's governor on a platform of increasing tourism and improving the environment. Smylie is really the "father" of the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, and his negotiations with the Harriman family in the 1960s over the donation of the spectacular Harriman State Park in eastern Idaho led to the Harrimans' requirement that Idaho at last establish a professional parks department.

Often overlooked in the history of Idaho state parks is the key role that McCroskey played. The Harrimans literally forced the state into establishing a state parks department if the state wanted the family's spectacular gift of the former Railroad Ranch. But the debate over McCroskey's gift a decade earlier, and Smylie's advocacy of its acceptance, foreshadowed the Harriman gift. As Smylie wrote when the legislature finally accepted McCroskey's offer, "This act looks to the future. Future generations will thank Mr. McCroskey, and I feel certain that they will applaud the State's decision to accept his gracious gift."

Virgil McCroskey was 79 years old when the state finally accepted his land. Remarkably, he fulfilled his obligation of maintaining the site, working there nearly every day that the road was passable. He even purchased additional land, and donated that to the State of Idaho. Virgil McCroskey died in September 1970, a few days short of his 94th birthday-having fulfilled his obligation of 15 years of volunteer labor for the State of Idaho. He left nearly his entire estate-$45,000-to the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation to care for what had become Mary Minerva McCroskey State Park, named for his mother.

In many ways McCroskey State park seems to break the rules of what a state park should be. What is it about this state park that you personally appreciate?

Each Idaho state park is special in its own way. But McCroskey State Park is unique, not only because of the inspirational story of Virgil McCroskey and his untiring efforts to do good, but also because the park itself is different than any other in Idaho; it perhaps most resembles The Blue Ridge Parkway in the East.

It is good that we have diversity in our state parks. It is good that many of our parks are located near population bases so that the greatest number of people can take advantage. It is good that some of our parks have paved trails, swimming beaches, boat launches, parking lots, restrooms, and visitor centers. But we don't need those amenities in every park.

In places, McCroskey State Park is only as wide as the dirt Skyline Drive. In other places, McCroskey consolidated land that offered off-road hiking possibilities, picnic opportunities, and expansive vistas. There are trees and springs, an occasional picnic table or fireplace. But mostly this is simply a beautiful scenic drive, virtually undeveloped. It is a place for contemplation, and almost always one of isolation. So many times we've traveled the entire course of Skyline Drive, appreciating Virgil McCroskey's wonderful legacy, and have never seen another person. It is that seclusion that lured McCroskey there in the first place. It remains a peaceful place for communing with nature.

[Courtesy Missi Gregorius]

Producer's Notes


As one of those who has spent many hours on federal public lands, I'm finding out new things about our state parks. For example, Idaho's first state park was named after U.S. Senator Weldon Heyburn, who was pushing for a national park – not a state park – at the southern end of Lake Coeur d' Alene. In fact, he called state parks “always a subject of political embarrassment.”

So Idaho's first state park was named after a man who hated the concept of state parks. But that irony should not diminish the fact that, after more than a century, Heyburn State Park is still one of the best state parks in the northwest.

Once considered the purview of the rich, today you can pretty much find any kind of outdoor recreation at Idaho’s parks – skiing, fishing, hiking, swimming, horseback riding, rock climbing, disc golf. On certain weekends, you can even get a lesson in the firing of Civil War cannons.

We have already begun visiting parks and will continue to do so throughout the spring and summer. Since we only have an hour, we will be zeroing in on a handful of Idaho's parks, like Heyburn, Thousand Springs, Priest Lake, Land of the Yankee Fork, Bruneau Dunes, Eagle Island, Old Mission, and Harriman. It was the Harriman family's special deal with Governor Robert Smylie that led to the creation of the State Parks system.

“To improve the quality of life in Idaho through outdoor recreation and resource stewardship” – that’s the agency mission statement, a mission statement that has evolved over the years, as state parks have become more egalitarian.

Park development in Idaho has always been challenging. The neighboring state of Oregon has more than 150 parks. We have 30. Personally, it's hard to believe that the number of Idaho's parks will increase any time soon, or that a reliance on volunteerism is enough to keep open all of our current parks into the foreseeable future.

But the diversity of Idaho's state parks is really quite remarkable. Each one seems to fill a niche. Each one seems to have a constituency or a community championing it. Each one seems to have a story to tell.

To some of my friends, state parks just aren't that cool.

I suppose I was one of those who thought state parks were best suited for young families with kids... families who could benefit from the protection that a state park provides.

Give me the Sawtooths or the White Clouds or the Frank Church Wilderness any day. For me, that’s where adventure lies.

But I've learned a lot about state parks this past summer, and I appreciate them much more now. In fact, my colleagues who helped with “State of Our Parks” - John Crancer, Pat Metzler, Jay Krajic, Joan Cartan-Hansen – feel the same way.

State parks help tell the story of Idaho. They are the keepers of special places, the memory makers for families. State parks also benefit local communities, with a dedicated staff who understands what it means to serve.

I came away from this project thinking that the folks of northern Idaho really do love their state parks, and use them more than the rest of us. Of course, what's not to love about Priest Lake State Park, Farragut, Old Mission, Heyburn. In fact, Heyburn was the northwest’s first state park.

I re-visited Harriman State Park, in eastern Idaho, this summer and realized what a splendid gift it was from the Harriman family. It is so peaceful and pastoral. It was also the impetus for creating a professionally run state parks department in Idaho… the gift that keeps on giving.

And in southern Idaho, who doesn't enjoy Bruneau Dunes State Park in the spring? Well, maybe some of those runners who competed in the Bruneau Beast run! One of them told us the Bruneau Beast was even harder than the Race to Robie Creek.

“To improve the quality of life in Idaho through outdoor recreation and resource stewardship.” That's the mission of the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. But we don't give them much money to meet that mission. In fact, we've cut their budget and asked them to raise most of the money themselves, this at a time when more and more folks are using state parks.

But they're a plucky lot, those park managers. They'll find a way to balance the checkbook and still make everyone feel welcome, just as they’ve done so many times before.

I certainly wish them well. They are the guardians of some of the best landscape Idaho has to offer.

Castle Rocks State Park [Courtesy Shari Hart]

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