State Park Fees Keep Rising
New hikes proposed, already higher than in any Midwestern state.
Daily park-entrance fees could increase up to $5 per vehicle. Standard campsite fees could be raised up to $10 per night, with an additional $5 bump for sites with electricity at the five most-popular parks. The Department of Natural Resources secretary would set fees within parameters approved by the Legislature. The goal would be to address a current $1.4 million projected structural deficit within the parks budget.
In 2015 Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature eliminated taxpayer support for the state parks’ operating budget, mandating that they become self-funding and function “like a business.” The move cut $4.7 million (28 percent) of the system’s $16.7 million budget.
Now, fees from admissions, camping and use permits must cover the entire parks budget. No other state park system in the U.S. sustains itself solely through fees, according to Bill Zager, president of the Friends of Wisconsin State Parks (FWSP). Zager told Urban Milwaukee that most states fund at least part of their parks budget through the general fund. He said some states support parks from lottery or oil-drilling-permit proceeds. He noted that South Dakota tried self-funding state parks several years ago and has since returned to providing support through its general fund.
Camping fees for Wisconsin residents currently range from $16 to $30 per night per site. Campers must also pay vehicle fees, either as a daily admission or annual pass. The standard vehicle admission fee is $8 for Wisconsin residents. Non-residents pay $21 to $35 per night for camping plus an $11 fee per vehicle per night. Thus, a night of camping with an electrical hookup at top-tier campgrounds currently costs $38 for Wisconsin residents and $46 for non-residents. (There’s also a $9.65 reservation fee for each booking.)
New camping rates could raise the nightly cost at many parks to $53 for residents and $61 for non-residents. At Devil’s Lake, High Cliff, Kohler-Andrae, Peninsula and Willow River state parks, sites with electricity could cost $58 to $66 per night. By contrast, standard rates at economy-priced motels in Wisconsin start at around $40.
Zager said FWSP board members would prefer that fees not be raised but are glad that proposed increases would likely be selective, rather than across the board. Nonetheless, they don’t want fees boosted to the “tipping point where it keeps people from coming.” He does not know exactly where that point is but believes any fee hikes should be temporary, studied for their impacts, and adjusted accordingly. FWSP’s mission is “preserving, promoting, protecting, and enhancing Wisconsin state parks, forests, trails and recreation areas.” The mostly-volunteer group supports 81 local Friends chapters around the state.
FWSP does support a proposed provision that would allow the percentage of campsites with electricity to increase from 30 percent to 35 percent. Of the 3,967 sites in all parks, currently 1,160 are electrified. Zager said there is strong demand for sites with electricity.
James Dick, the Department of Natural Resources spokesman, declined to comment for this article because the budget is “still a work in progress.” Sen. Alberta Darling (R- River Hills), co-chair of the joint finance committee, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee) told Urban Milwaukee that proposed fee increases would “squeeze every penny” out of those visiting state parks and do nothing to increase parks’ public accessibility or appeal.
Wisconsin Daily Park-Entry Fees Highest in Midwest
Wisconsin’s per-day entry fees are already higher than those at all other Midwestern state parks. Proposed fees per private vehicle (car, truck or motorcycle) could be raised to $13 for residents and $16 for nonresidents. Visitors already must also obtain a daily or annual per-person trail pass to engage in off-road bicycling, cross-country skiing, inline skating or horseback riding at many locations.
Wisconsin waives state park fees for everyone during the first full weekend in June — the only free or discounted days for the general public. State residents who are service members receive a vehicle-admission exemption on Veterans Day and the three-day weekend that includes Memorial Day.
Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Ohio do not charge entry fees to state parks, either per vehicle or as a per-person daily-use fee.
Kansas, Minnesota and North Dakota charge $5 per day per vehicle regardless of residency. Nebraska’s daily vehicle fee is $6 per day for residents and $8 for non-residents. South Dakota charges $4 per person or $6 per vehicle. Indiana charges a $7 daily vehicle fee for residents and $9 for nonresidents. Michigan charges non-residents $9 for a daily vehicle fee.
North Dakota library-card holders in 11 cities may check out a daily state-park vehicle pass at public libraries, as they would a book. The pass affords entrance to any state park, waiving the $5 daily vehicle fee, and is good for seven days. (Similar programs are offered in other states.)
Annual Passes Higher Than Most Nearby States
All Midwestern states charging entry fees to state parks also offer annual passes. Wisconsin’s annual in-state “vehicle admission sticker” is $28 for residents and $38 for out-of-staters, which provides access to all sites that charge admission. Passes for a second vehicle at the same address cost $10.50 for state residents and $20.50 for non-residents. Residents age 65 and older pay $13 for an annual pass (or $3 per day).
Fee waivers are available for disabled veterans and former prisoners of war who are residents. Wisconsin’s passes are valid for the calendar year. Some states’ annual passes are valid for 12 months after purchase, which offers more value. Wisconsin charges daily vehicle fees in addition to camping fees; some states do not. Proposed legislation would not raise the cost of annual passes; however they already top those in most Midwestern states.
Michigan residents pay $11 for an annual Recreation Passport (or $5 annually for motorcycles). The passport costs $32 for non-residents. If purchased through the Secretary of State’s office, additional discounts are available for local businesses and services.
Kansas residents may purchase a State Parks Passport for $15.50 with vehicle registration, valid for a full year from month of issue. Otherwise, annual vehicle passes cost $25, regardless of residency. Disabled and senior residents may purchase passes for $13.75.
Minnesota charges $25 for an annual pass (regardless of residency), valid for a full year from the month of purchase. Disabled veterans and active-duty military personnel can obtain free or discounted vehicle permits.
South Dakota’s annual permit is $30, regardless of residency.
Nebraska charges $31 for a resident annual pass and $46 for a non-resident pass.
Indiana tops the Midwest for annual passes. Residents pay $50 per calendar year. Residents age 65 and older and disabled veterans pay $25 for an annual permit. Non-residents pay $70 annually.
A number of other states offer free admission to their parks, including Hawaii, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia, most state parks in North Carolina, (37 of 40) and in Oklahoma (all but 4 are free). Most state parks in Connecticut are free on weekdays, and many parks in Texas offer free days or don’t charge admission.
State parks are most popular for close-to-home outdoor recreation. The National Association of State Park Directors reports that 92 percent of all state park visitors are day-time users. In 2016, more than 791 million people visited state parks, which is more than double the U.S. population. There were 66.6 million overnight stays in state parks.