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Hooking up | Balancing acts | Stewardship
Friends | The nature of camping
State parks reservations
Supporting parks friends
It's hard to think of someone who sets their Fourth of July plans in the fall as a procrastinator, but when it comes to reserving camping space at one of Wisconsin's premier state parks, it's a safer bet to pick up the phone now to secure a prime campsite for a festive family get-away next summer.
State Parks Director Bill Morrissey says it's a common refrain and a sign of changing times. State parks remain so popular that camping takes planning to get sites at the most popular parks; sites with electrical hookups and sites with the most scenic overviews, especially on holidays. At the most popular parks, campers are less spontaneous than they used to be in watching the weather, then planning weekend camping trips a few days ahead of time. Given 14 million visits to state parks annually, the popular campsites fill up quickly. That's why an automated reservation system now lets people book their trips 11 months in advance.
Prior to 1999, would-be campers had to mail their reservation requests to each individual park after the first of the year and it took parks staff weeks to sort out all the requests. Many of the requests had to be turned away because campsites booked quickly for popular weekends. The automated system allows folks to book space up to 11 months ahead on a rolling schedule.
"Many families still love the state parks, but they now also consider camping experiences in public forests, county facilities and private campgrounds as well. It's supply and demand," Morrissey said. "We have beautiful state parks that are great fun to visit, but there are simply too few campsites to meet a growing demand for them, and too few campsites of the type people tell us they want."
Many people are still backpack and tent campers, but the fastest growing segment of the camping public is RV campers who are seeking a somewhat different camping experience. They want to be close to nature, but they also want larger pull-in campsites with water, electricity and sewer connections. There are tradeoffs in deciding how many of those amenities should be met in the future by Wisconsin's state parks system, what will be provided at county forest facilities, and what will be offered by private campgrounds. Naturally, there are economic and social consequences to each option.
The average state park visitor spends $60 per day on recreation-related items in Wisconsin. Out-of-state visitors spent roughly $225 million on parks-related trips into Wisconsin in 1999, the last time figures were tallied. About 8,000 jobs are supported by park users and about 200 jobs by trail users.
Wisconsin's State Park system includes 53 state parks and recreation areas that provide 3,786 campsites on more than 78,000 acres. That's a lot of sites, but it hasn't kept pace with the public's enthusiasm for outdoor experiences. Compare that to Michigan's system of 97 parks providing 13,500 campsites on 284,000.
In 2000, the Wisconsin nonprofit group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin issued a report outlining the need for more public campsites in our state. The 1000 Friends educate about sound land use planning and advocate for protecting natural landscapes Their report confirmed that supply hasn't kept up with growing demand for campsites in state parks and forests. From 1962 to 1996, campsites in the Wisconsin state park and southern recreational forest system increased 43 percent from 2,648 sites to 3,786 sites, but the number of camper days increased by 103.7 percent in the same period.
To address the growing need, 1000 Friends recommended adding about 1,000 new sites by 2005, providing $15 million to develop recreational sites and increasing the rate of public land acquisition to allow greater opportunities for quiet and nature-based recreation.
"Our parks are a big part of our quality of life and are part of the reason many people choose to live here," says Steve Hiniker, executive director of the 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.
He recognizes some progress in acquiring new properties but notes development is encroaching on parks and it's difficult to make space for creating additional campsites.
Kohler-Andrae State Park in Sheboygan, for example, reached its camping capacity this past summer and Jim Buchholz, the property manager, says that is typical. The park is ideally situated by the Lake Michigan shore and has more of the modern hookups motorized campers are seeking, hence the park has the top demand of all state parks for camping spots. Due to a warm spring, campers came earlier in the season and are expected to stay later. The park houses two group campsites, 105 family sites, two camp host sites and a teepee site, but that is still not enough to meet demand.
One trend Buchholz notes is an increasing number of visitors who just come for the day.
"On a hot day the beach can be covered with up to 2,000 people. Finding a parking space becomes a problem when the beach fills with so many day visitors. We've had to shut the park down when we've reached beach capacity a couple of times and we hate to do that.
"Back in 1980, Kohler-Andrae had 220,000 visitors for the year and 47,000 campers. By 2005, we had 418,000 visitors and nearly 60,000 campers for the season with the same number of campsites we had back in 1980," Buchholz noted.
One challenge is working with policymakers to determine how much state campsites should update to meet the changes in camping technology and the camping public. Twenty-five years ago, many of the park visitors were tent campers. As these campers matured, they sought a few conveniences. Many bought pop-up campers with bunks, a stove and a little sink. Now some use hard-topped pull-behind trailers and RV motor homes that are air-conditioned and have small kitchens and bathrooms.
In 2002, a two-year study by state parks and the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed although campers appreciate the rustic nature of state parks and trails, they expect amenities at campgrounds such as garbage collection, sewage hookup, telephones, restrooms, showers, drinking water and concessions such as canoe and kayak rentals.
By far, the most popular campsites today are those with electrical hookups, Morrissey says, and many camper comment cards cite a need for more electric campsites. Campers pulling bigger RVs want to power everything and even bring their stereos and televisions to the campground. Some even ask for WiFi access for their mobile computing devices. Current Wisconsin law, however, only allows 25 percent of state park campsites to offer electrical hookups because of the cost in providing these amenities.
"People used to be happy just finding a picnic table and fire ring at their campsite; but times have changed," says Jeff Prey, DNR parks planning analyst.
The Department of Natural Resources released its draft Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP) last August. The five-year plan analyzes data from the Department of Tourism to identify emerging recreational issues and propose solutions. One clear challenge that remains is increasing the number of campsites statewide. From 1984 to 1999, counties and other local municipalities added 4,476 campsites, private campgrounds added 4,232 sites, but the state parks system only got authority to add 421 campsites. Of those, 217 were in the Bong State Recreation Area (Kenosha County).
Private campgrounds typically provide electrical hook-ups at 75 percent of their sites. The SCORP will advise addressing the current cap on electrical sites at state parks.
Morrissey says public properties face a range of challenges in meeting the variety of outdoor activities that outdoor recreationists want. For instance, all-terrain vehicle (ATV) use is one of the fastest growing areas in outdoor recreation, yet it is impractical for ATVs to share trails with hikers, bikers, walkers and skiers seeking solitude. How and where should public properties accommodate climbing interest in motorized recreation and who pays for sturdy trails that can hold up to ATV traffic?
Hunting in state parks remains controversial but it's an important tool for containing overpopulated deer herds that browse the forest understory and create openings for invasive species to move in.
At some parks invasive species overrun native plants and garlic mustard is replacing trilliums. Volunteers help with some control efforts. Signage and boot brushes can keep hikers from spreading invasives and parks staff are suppressing other species. Since April, 2006, the threat of emerald ash borer has led to firewood restrictions prohibiting visitors from bringing firewood from infested areas into state parks and forests.
About 90,000 people in Wisconsin currently engage in a form of treasure hunting on state lands called geocaching (visit Wisconsin Geocaching Association or geo-cache.com). Geocaching is an adventure game where individuals and organizations hide boxes and share clues to their location on the Internet. GPS users then use the location coordinates to find the caches. Geocaching is part of the "No Kid Left Indoors" movement that is trying to get children outside.
"Geocaching is getting more and more families and younger people out to hike," says Peter Biermeier, chief of Operations in the DNR Bureau of Parks and Recreation. "It blends technology and recreation which appeals to some. As we become increasingly fascinated with technology as a society, this is a natural evolution and a way to keep kids using their active minds and busy feet."
Another way to get children outdoors is through interpretive programs in parks.
"We are seeing more interest in our interpretive programs and demand for a greater variety of programs in state parks such as guided and self-guided hikes and nature programs," says Sherry Klosiewski, DNR Chief Naturalist. "Given staff limitations, the parks will rely more heavily on volunteers to run these programs, but providing interpretive programs is one of the key purposes of our state parks."
A bright spot in parks operations is the state's Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, created by the Legislature in 1989 to protect sensitive lands, provide outdoor recreation and restore wildlife habitat.
The $60 million per year fund provides financial support to hundreds of local government and nonprofit parks projects across the state. Since 1994, more than $1.6 million has been awarded to Friends of Wisconsin State Parks groups who match Stewardship funds with volunteer hours and more than $1.2 million in private donations. With Stewardship funding, the Friends of Wyalusing and the Starsplitters of Wyalusing completed an astronomy observatory at the park. Four buildings house two large telescopes and provide space for programs, library and computers. Friends of Whitefish Dunes State Park used Stewardship funds to build a park amphitheater. Friends of High Cliff State Park built a woodshed to support their firewood sales. Friends of Bong State Recreation Area used a Stewardship grant to construct a solarium.
In 2006, more than $220,000 in grants has been awarded to 18 friends groups for improving recreation, visitor facilities, outdoor education opportunities and customer services at state parks and trails. Grants ranged from $1,500 to $20,000 and must be matched dollar for dollar by the recipients. Among the projects were a $2,500 grant to the Friends of Buckhorn for a beach rinse shower, $20,000 for a nature interpretive center at Newport and $20,000 for playground equipment at New Glarus Woods.
One of the state parks' greatest challenges is taking care of the sites it already has.
"We are number one in the nation in rails-to-trails conversions, but nearly last in having sufficient funds to maintain recreational property," Morrissey says.
As operation and maintenance funds for parks and trails systems fall behind, the formal "friends" groups often step in to fulfill some of the work, help keep the parks in good shape, and keep customers happy. Friends of Wisconsin State Parks groups support more than 70 of the state parks, forests, trails and recreation areas.
"The power of a few folks is incredible," Morrissey says. "If it wasn't for the friends groups, we'd have a hard time making it."
Friends group programs started in Wisconsin in the early 1980s to bring concerned community members together to help preserve and promote state parks through education and interpretive work, community events, fund-raisers, and property maintenance and improvement activities.
In 1996, the Friends of Wisconsin State Parks formed a nonprofit public foundation to serve as an umbrella organization for local friends groups that could offer liability insurance, help develop parks websites, conduct training, advertise upcoming parks events, conduct workshops on recruiting members, start an electronic newsletter and provide low-interest loans.
Kohler-Andrae State Park relies on its friends group to better meet customers' needs. The friends' 100 members assist at the nature center, and set up special events such as candlelight dune hikes and a Halloween hike. They also raise money to support the park's interpretive and recreational programs. The friends group applies for Stewardship grants and has helped finance a nature center addition, a meeting room, a paved bicycle route, a teepee campsite, and is building an accessible camp for people with physical limitations. The group also sells firewood, and operates the camp laundry and concession stand.
Kohler-Andrae volunteers also serve as nature center hosts and campground hosts. Campground hosts receive free camping in exchange for greeting arriving campers and helping with campground maintenance, including cleaning out campfire rings and campsites, cleaning the beaches and staining picnic tables. Many campground hosts are retired couples. Hosts also have operated the Sanderling Nature Center since the park lost its fulltime outdoor educator during a statewide reduction in permanent positions.
Another parks group, Neigh-bors for Trails, rounded up equestrians who are dedicated to preserving the Black River Trails at the northwest tract of the property that is also used by bikers and hikers.
"If you want to get a friends group or other volunteers motivated, it is important to have interesting projects for them to work on," Buchholz says. "They have to have goals to find personal satisfaction."
The Friends of Capital Springs Centennial State Park is a new group enthusiastic about the new park developing south of Madison on Lake Waubesa adjoining an existing county park. Staff and volunteers created a plan with the property manager. They held a kick-off event that attracted about 80 people, had a silent auction and offered tours. They've already put together bylaws and articles of incorporation.
The DNR offers $500 loans to help friends groups with start-up fees and facilitates conference calls if members are not from the area. For some groups, building membership is its greatest hurdle.
Juliana Zolondek has been a member of the Friends of Buckhorn and Roche-a-Cri state parks for more than two years. She is heading to UW-Stevens Point this fall to study wildlife management and says she got involved in the parks because she grew up in the area and loved the parks.
"My experience growing up around state parks helped me choose a career path," she says. Zolondek contends that friends groups should emphasize their strengths – providing social opportunities for people who are already park enthusiasts, a way to learn new skills, a chance to get the whole family involved in community service, a way to meet families and link single parents, and an opportunity to learn leadership skills.
"To increase membership, people needed to know who we are," suggests Dunnell Kendrick-Parker, President of Friends of New Glarus Woods State Park.
Kendrick-Parker got pictures of the friends group in action into the local newspaper. The group has a logo, mission, and website (members donated design time and webspace so the group only needed to pay for a domain name and e-mail address). The friends act as the park's naturalists. Its 12-member team pulls together three big events a year.
Kent Goeckermann, the park superintendent at Copper Falls State Park, says people travel hundreds of miles to help. "There can be a strong local support group, but some park features may attract people from outside the area who provide hands-on help or contribute money," he says.
Volunteering is an American tradition, says Jean Rygiel, DNR West Central regional park and trail manager.
"And our friends are continuing this tradition," Rygiel says.
Natasha Kassulke is associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources.