State Parks - A a time to Appreciate What We Have and Invest in Critical Needs

May 21, 2014*

We are heading into a glorious new season for our parks and trails and it affords us the opportunity to assess what the condition of these treasures is and where our challenges in the future reside.
Wisconsin’s state parks are more popular than any time in state history – 13 million visitors last season. They are also more in need of our attention than ever. As president of Friends of Wisconsin State Parks (FWSP), I hear the stories from around the state and even quietly from the Department of Natural Resources that our parks need a major infusion of, let’s call it, budgetary focus.
Existing buildings need repair, parks need additional staff andinfrastructure like roads, plumbing, handi-abled cabins and, yes, electricity needs upgrading. The DNR and its State Parks Bureau have done an amazing job at keeping our parks in the functional condition they are in, but a shoestring can only carry so much weight.

I’m not sure what we’re calling our young people these days –Millenials, Gen X, Y or Z – but I know for sure we need them toappreciate and embrace our state parks, come up with exciting new ideas and help keep them vital. Currently, the people who generally volunteer their time and energy to help care for our state parks, through non-profit organizations like FWSP, are an aging bunch and we are fully prepared to pass the torch to younger creative minds and stronger backs. This is a happy challenge.
In January, I had the benefit of traveling to California to meet with my counterparts from across the country – non-profit“Friends” groups committed to protection and promoting their state’s parks system. The California State Parks Foundation is the national gold standard in commitments, fundraising abilityand responsibilities. The foundation boasts an annual operating budget of $10 million for its mission. Good thing. Back in 2012,California had a budget crisis and individual “Friends groups there were called upon to literally keep numerous state parks from closing their gates to tens of thousands of annual visitors. Not enough money in the state budget they were told. While Wisconsin is not likely to face future closures, key stakeholdersagree something dramatic needs to happen soon to protect our parks from a less-glorious future.
Innovative thought is required moving forward. For those responsible corporations who value the environment and our parks – invest. For those school systems that want a partner to get more of our young people out of the bricks and mortar classrooms and into the splendid outdoors to learn– let’s form partnerships. For those hunters and motorized vehicle enthusiasts – let’s unify our efforts to protect our precious resources for all to enjoy. To our elected officials – be bold in your decisions to put aside partisan differences and celebrate a greater investment in a vital economic development engine; parks and trails.
Illustrating both our challenges and opportunitiues is one of Wisconsin’s newest state parks – Lakeshore – near theSummerfest grounds in Milwaukee. This small, but gorgeous island property is an urban treasure, boasts more than a 100,000visitors a year and yet, according to Bob Gosse, president of theFriends of Lakeshore State Park, there are families and kids who live blocks away that don’t even know it exists for them. The park needs a visitor’s and education center and there’s no state money to make it happen. Similar stories play out in other state parks across the state. There is a definite need for park improvements, but no money.
Taxpayers, these are your parks and trails. You pay for them.Take stock in what you already own. Cherish the opportunity to pack up the family and be in a beautiful place for the day or the weekend. Get involved or at least support those who are. Encourage your kids to get excited about the outdoors. This will be a great season, but let us not take our state treasures for granted.
*by Roger Putnam III, Friends of Wisconsin State Parks President