Foundation targets Iowa state parks for upgrades

Goal is private/public effort to spruce up parks in time for centennial

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April 1, 2014 | 2:28 am

DES MOINES – State park supporters announced plans Wednesday to mount a strategic public-private effort to spruce up the 87 parks by the system’s centennial year in 2020 and beyond.

“We intend to help cultivate stewardship through environmental education and research, increase the number of park users, and improve the quality of visitor experiences in Iowa’s parks and places of natural beauty,” said Gov. Terry Branstad, who joined members of the Iowa Parks Foundation for a Statehouse announcement and release of new survey data on park usage.

The multi-year effort likely will require “hundreds of millions of dollars,” the head of the state park system said, but foundation leaders and Branstad said it is too early to put a dollar figure on what will be required to upgrade state parks until more work is done over the next year to assess the needs and formulate a strategy for improving the facilities, infrastructures and amenities that Iowans support.

Branstad said he did not expect state policy makers would support increasing the state sales tax or re-imposing a user fee to generate revenue, although he left open the option of using a share to the state’s $688 million surplus to beef up funding for the park system. Branstad likened the public-private approach for the state parks to the formation of a foundation that helped raise funds privately to supplement money the state put up to upgrade the fairgrounds.

Iowa Parks Foundation leaders released results of an $85,000 survey they funded that found that 79 percent of the 1,237 respondents indicated they had been to one of Iowa’s state parks in the last two years. That exceeded a 72 percent level for national park attendance established by Leisure Vision. The Iowa response was even higher among families with children under the age of 19.

Also, three out of four respondents indicated that trails and other outdoor park facilities and activities were important or very important to their health and the health of other household members.

Kevin Szcodronski, head of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ state park division, said the state is in the third year of a $5 million annual appropriation for park upgrades, but he noted the needs for deferred maintenance, infrastructure and facility improvements, and other upgrades “will quickly get into the hundreds of millions of dollars.” DNR officials recently had a dozen community forums in which Iowans spoke “loud and clear” in favor of keeping the parks open and keeping them nice.

Szcodronski noted that some state parks can attract volumes of visitors that exceed the populations of some of Iowa’s smaller towns with similar costs and demands for roads, waste disposal, law enforcement and management.

“There’s great need, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” said DNR deputy director Bruce Troutman.

Officials said the survey shows users are making more day trips to the parks and while they’re there, they like water activities, hiking, wildlife and scenic areas, and playgrounds among nearly two dozen amenities cited. Foundation officials said the long-term goal is to generate private resources to help match the public commitments.

“The state park system is the single greatest, most-used state asset,” said Joe Gunderson of the Iowa Parks Foundation. “Nothing else is used like our state parks.”

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