A century after Indiana’s state parks were born, the division charged with their care oversees about 112 square miles of parks and 210 square miles of lakes and recreational areas.
Those 33 properties received more than 16.5 million visits between June 2014 and July 2015.
Brown County State Park — the state’s largest at about 24 square miles — accounted for almost 1.5 million of those visits.
High traffic is both essential and detrimental.
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About 75 percent of parks’ operating budgets come from gate fees, camping and other user fees, according to the state budget.
The remaining 25 percent of operating expenses, plus all capital improvements, are paid for from the state’s general fund.
Every visitor is another person who may come to love and wish to preserve the natural heritage of Indiana, said Dan Bortner, director of state parks and reservoirs.
Yet there are costs that go with serving them, directly and in the form of wear on the property and buildings.
“I can accomplish 50 percent of the goals of this division by locking the gate. Problem solved. Conservation is taken care of,” Bortner said.
“But, that’s not what we’re here for.”
The Indiana division of state parks and reservoirs exists to conserve the state’s natural heritage. But it also is tasked with education and recreation for Hoosiers, Bortner said.
“We use recreation to help pay for conservation … but it’s striking that balance, because you can love a property to death if you’re not careful,” he said.
Contact with nature is essential for people, especially young people, Bortner said. He talks about what he has heard referred to as “nature deficit disorder.”
“That disconnect between children and nature seems to be ever-widening, and we have to make a conscious effort to bring those two back together,” he said.
“I grew up in these parks, and have spent most of my adult life utilizing the properties as well, and the one thing I can tell you is that I’ve never seen a child, once they got there, that didn’t have a good time,” he said. “It’s just getting them through the gate and getting them there.”
Jim Eagleman served as Brown County State Park’s interpretive naturalist for about 36 of his 40 years with the state parks system. He said returning visitors notice when Nature Center displays haven’t been updated or replaced after several years.
Despite requests for additional funding in each budget cycle, displays at the park’s Nature Center had been maintained, but not thoroughly updated between the 1980s and when Eagleman retired in 2015, he said.
“With more and more people coming — we’re in the people business — you want the best things out in front of them: displays and exhibits and fresh-looking taxidermy mounts,” he said. “We kind of slipped back from that, in my opinion.”
Eagleman said Brown County State Park Property Manager Doug Baird is faced with a monumental task of keeping the state’s largest park running as smoothly as it does on the funding he has.
“Sort of like a three-legged dog: You get by as best you can with what you’re given, realizing that this is an ongoing problem, never to be solved,” Eagleman said.
For some tasks, such as eradicating invasive species — plants that are not native to the area but thrive and potentially crowd out native vegetation — volunteers and private donations have helped, Eagleman said. Yet, while volunteer help is appreciated, it cannot be relied on to do the work of paid employees.
“Funding comes our way as it’s available,” Baird said. “My position is we never have as much money as we’d like to have.”
Bill Walters of Nashville was state parks and reservoirs director from 1977 to 1989. He said he feels conservation management had changed for the better since he first started with the parks system.
The former approach was much more hands-off, Walters said. The parks are now viewed as changing environments with life cycles that need to be managed, rather than as unchanging and left untouched.
Walters talked about the introduction of periodic deer hunts in the state park in the 1980s, which was initially criticized.
However, Eagleman set up enclosures that kept the deer from feeding in certain areas, and was able to demonstrate how much damage the deer were doing as a result when the population wasn’t controlled.
When the Horseman’s Camp and trails were moved to the southern end of the park in the 1980s, erosion on the existing trails had created places where someone standing in the middle of the trail would be at eye level with the ground, Walters said.
Issues like that are just a reality that state parks have to be constantly working to solve, Walters said.
While the majority of operating costs at state parks are paid from user fees, ongoing maintenance is not.
For fiscal year 2017, the state budget has about $34 million set aside for operating the parks and reservoirs division, with about $25 million of it coming from the fund where user fees are deposited.
Another $19 million was appropriated from the state general fund for all DNR properties.
About $15 million of that is for preventative maintenance, nature center education and repair and rehabilitation. The remaining $4 million is for specific work at Wyandotte Caves in the Harrison-Crawford State Forest and Whitewater Memorial State Park in southeastern Indiana.
The parks and reservoirs division is also responsible for a host of historic buildings dating to the time the Civilian Conservation Corps completed projects around the state, Bortner said.
“Now that we’re 100 years old, a lot of these buildings, the original buildings, you know the CCC-era structures that were put in from 1930 to about 1950, those things are all in need of a lot of help and a lot of love,” Bortner said. “The federal government has the same problem. It’s just the capital expenditures to maintain the infrastructure.”
Jerry Pagac, state parks director from 1989 to 2006, said he has seen what a lack of funding can ultimately mean for a state park system. After retiring from Indiana’s parks, he took over as executive director of the Champaign County Illinois Forest Preserve District.
Pagac called the condition of the Illinois state parks, which are completely funded by tax dollars, a “tragedy.”
“They’re being so inadequately funded, and they’ve lost so many positions, they’re running their system on a shoestring,” he said. “And I applaud their efforts, but it’s a shame what’s been allowed to happen in Illinois.”
In 2015, various fees charged to visitors changed at Indiana DNR properties. Changes affected state parks and reservoirs and some state forest properties.
Daily gate fees increased by $2, to $7 for in-state visitors and $9 for out-of-state visitors. At Indiana Dunes and Prophetstown state parks, they rose to $12 and $10. Annual passes went up by $10, to $50 for in-state visitors and $70 for out-of-state.
Camping and cabin fees also increased by $4 — a 10 percent to 33 percent increase depending on time of week and type of site. So did horse camping fees, aquatic center passes at two parks and motorized lake permits.
Some new fees and permits also were put in place, for off-road biking on intermediate and advanced trails, commercial photography sessions at state park and reservoir properties, and $5 “transaction fees” for camping reservations.
In the release announcing the May 13, 2015, change to fees, the DNR stated the fee increase was needed to meet rising costs such as for utilities and supplies. This was the first across-the-board fee increase since 2006, the DNR said.
Aside from Michigan, all the states surrounding Indiana have parks systems without entrance or user fees, Pagac said. Yet, Indiana’s parks are also notably better in his opinion.
“I think a lot of Hoosiers really treasure their state parks as part of their heritage,” he said.
One hundred years ago, in a 1916 letter to the Indiana Historical Commission, Richard Leiber, the founder of Indiana state parks, envisioned the parks “would not only memorialize the past, but would build for the future by practical conservation. They would distinctly point out the desirability of preserving trees, of protecting birds and animal life.”
Yet Lieber also saw practical concerns in setting up a state parks system.
“Other states, as doubtless will Indiana, have found that there is also a cash value in scenery, an income to be derived from excursionists, from special commercial privileges and concessions, and from fish and game, an income that can be turned toward the cost of maintenance,” he wrote.
If budgets were decided by popular vote, the state parks would likely get a bigger share of the state tax revenue than they do, Pagac said.
Whether it is funding through tax dollars or through user fees, maintaining the interest of Hoosiers in the parks is essential, Bortner said.
“At the end of the day, Hoosiers are the owners of these properties. We’re just caretakers,” he said.
For Indiana’s bicentennial, celebrated this year, panels of Indiana residents participated in an Indiana Bicentennial Visioning Report, collecting “big ideas” on how to “propel Indiana forward into our next 100 years.”
One of the recommendations of the panel on Arts, Leisure and Culture was to double the size of state parks by 2055.
The panel envisioned the parks as “hubs of an extensive trail network,” and saw such expansion as a way to further connect urban and rural Hoosiers with one another. Parks are an important quality of life asset, the report said.
The report did not stipulate how such an the expansion would be carried out or paid for, besides suggesting that a youth jobs corps could be involved in building and maintaining them.
Right now, Bortner sees himself and the current parks system as being in the business of making memories that patrons will treasure.
“People will take care of those things that they love,” he said. “They will pay to take care of the things they love. They will lobby their legislators about things that they love.”
“Children who grow up in these properties, as adults, will take care of these properties, and provide for these properties,” he said.
The Indiana Division of State Parks and Reservoirs gathers income from various fees that are deposited into a special fund, from which around 75 percent of operating costs are paid.
For fiscal year 2016, state parks took in $30,026,409 from various fees, as well as around $1.7 million from other sources such as donations and crop leases.
Those fees break down to:
Gate fees and passes: $10,699,997
Camping, cabin and shelter rental: $14,402,566
Other permits and rentals (includes horse, bike, boat and swimming fees): $4,923,847
The General Assembly appropriated $25,541,971 from that fund for fiscal year 2016 for division operating expenses.
Source: Indiana Department of Natural Resources
User fees account for 75 percent of the budget for Indiana state park and reservoir properties.
In 2015, fees changed, affecting state parks and reservoirs and some state forest properties.
What didn’t change: Entrance fees for pedestrians, bicycles and commercial buses. Horse tags. Non-motorized lake permits. Daily swimming pool rates except at Prophetstown and O’Bannon. Picnic shelter and recreation building rental. Boat mooring and rental fees. Family cabin rental fees.
What went up:
Daily gate fees for private vehicles increased by $2, to $7 for in-state and $9 out of state (except Indiana Dunes, $12, and Prophetstown $10)
Annual passes by $10, to $50 for in-state and $70 for out of state (Golden Hoosier Pass for age 65 and over increased $5 to $25).
Nightly camping and cabin rates increased by $4 (except rent-a-camp, which rose $5 to $40), varying from a 33 percent increase to nonelectric sites rented Sunday through Wednesday nights for $16 to a 10 percent increase for full hookup sites rented for $44.
Horse camping fees went up by $1.95 to $14.95 for state forest self-registration to a $4 increase for electric sites, with Sunday through Wednesday going to $26 and holiday weekends going to $36 nightly.
Aquatic center passes rose by $2, to $5 at Prophetstown and O’Bannon state parks.
Motorized lake permits rose by $3, to $25.
Off-road cycling permit, not required for beginner trails: $5 daily and $20 annual
Commercial photography permit: $100
Transaction fee for camping (per purchase, not per night): $5
Source: Indiana Department of Natural Resources