Virginia Small

State Park Fees Keep Rising

New hikes proposed, already higher than in any Midwestern state.

By - Jun 22nd, 2017 06:16 pm

Devil's Lake. Photo by CrispAir at en.wikipedia (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Devil’s Lake. Photo by CrispAir at en.wikipedia (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Fees to visit Wisconsin’s state parks, forests, recreation areas and trail areas could increase again, after being hiked two years ago. Some campers could pay up to $20 more per night. The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance recently approved higher fees as recommended by Governor Scott Walker, by a 12-to-4 vote. All Republicans voted in favor and all Democrats opposed the measures.

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.

An April 21, 2017 article in Door County Pulse confirmed that “No state park system has been able to fund operations and capital development through park revenue over the long term.” Scott Hassett, who served as DNR Secretary under Gov. Jim Doyle, told the Pulse that “fee increases will inevitably squeeze low-income residents out of the parks.”

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.

North Dakota charges $25 for an annual vehicle entrance permit, regardless of residency. Passes for North Dakota residents 65 and older are $20. Discounts are also available for disabled veterans.

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.

Categories: Environment, Politics

13 thoughts on “State Park Fees Keep Rising”

  1. GPKWH says:

    This comes as no surprise as we here in Milwaukee county will remember Walker tried his best to ruin the county parks and now he is doing the same to the state parks. Our DNR secretary is a real estate developer, that should say it all. Soon you will see proposals to sell off prime acres of the Kettle Moraine for development in order to pay off the huge deficits caused by the no growth policies of this administration.

  2. Jeff w. says:

    Why would little scooter care about recreation for middle and low class families? Just another example of how him and his GOP are haters to people who aren’t the elite and rich. My wife and I camp in other states to protest his greed and will be moving to Costa Rica in a few months. We will not be able to afford the ridiculous GOP tax giveaway. Good riddance to Wisconsin and the USA!!!

  3. WashCoRepub says:

    Very fair. Those who use the resources and services, pay for them. I frequently use our beautiful state parks and don’t mind one bit paying more for their use. I find the facilities to be excellent and the staff helpful, friendly and knowledgeable.

  4. wilsonpark says:

    Not fair at all. Our state parks are public treasures we should not be increasing the barriers for the public to enjoy these treasures.

  5. myfivecents says:

    It’s a tax increase on middle and low income families. So much for not raising taxes on anybody, huh?

  6. MrsKC1008 says:

    All citizens of WI benefit from the research that happens in our state parks, whether you physically use the parks or not.

  7. Adam says:

    Yeah, why would our STATE government fund our STATE park system? Just doesn’t make any sense. If a working class family wants to go tent camping for the night, they could be looking at $40+ to do so. I’d call that a barrier for some and as @myfivecents points out, this amounts to more tax burden on middle and low income in favor of more tax cuts for the rich.

    The elites in this country have really become an arrogant selfish lot by far and large and they would do well to study history. When you push the masses to far, they will revolt. And it ain’t pretty. How well is this massive Medicaid slashing / rich tax cut going to play out for rural working poor in WI? We continue to inch closer to the point of upheaval and the Republicans seem hell bent on seeing it through.

  8. Patrick Welch says:

    It sounds like Wisconsin is trying to deter tourism with additional user fee taxes. I’m fortunate to live in a state, North Carolina, that has a user fee in just a few state parks. Along with the national forest and national parks in the state I have a multitude of areas to access hiking trails and fishing without added taxes. The health benefits from getting out and enjoying nature are real. If WI continues to raise taxes in users there will be a trickle down affect on general health. Additionally once the state drives away out of state visitors and the revenue from them it will fall on the in state users to make up the difference with even higher fees. Obviously the administration doesn’t realize it’s a competitive business just like any other business and the higher the fees the less likely they’ll draw out of state visitors. What will be next, fees for water and sewer based on the size of your tent or camper and their capacity? Trying to raise revenue to support state parks with user fees only will never work , it will just be a continuous cycle of raising fees as the volume decreases.

  9. Gregg says:

    Fees should be established according to income in order to allow even the unemployed and the poor to enjoy the beauty of our state parks. With these proposed increases applying even to people with limited incomes, people will choose to stay in motels with a lot more amenities and comfort and more services received for less money. Raising camping fees on familes who can not afford it very counter productive to budget problems, when you want to increase use of our state parks, rather then decrease their use. We should be seeking ways to increase camping fee incomes by increased use of state parkcampgrounds. By just increasing the use of our state parks, more income could be easilygenerated, which would solve the budget problems due to underuse of many of our state park campgrounds. The reason many people choose not to camp is because camping fees already are very expensive and people can stay in a motel with a lot more services provided for not much more money then camping fees.

  10. Marilyn Peterson says:

    The parks are already self-funding in that they generate BILLIONS in tourism $$$$$! A few dollars spent on the parks is an investment that returns tenfold or more. Nickel and diming the public is counterproductive.

  11. SnowBeer says:

    I’m glad to see that WashCoRepub would support a commuter tax to have the tens of thousands of people who use Milwaukee police and fire services every day but pay zero in taxes for them. She apparently would also support churches paying property taxes, since many of us don’t use them at all yet have to pay their portion of the tax bill.

    As She said, very fair, those that use the services should pay for them. Or does that only apply to services the gop doesn’t use? The hipocracy of the modern right is astounding.

  12. myfivecents says:

    Greg — How are you going to establish fees by income. Is everyone supposed to carry around a copy of their taxes to prove what they earn? Besides, the people who can afford to pay more are not spending time camping in the first place. They are going to more posh vacation sites. When they raise fees (taxes) like this, they don’t care if you can afford it or not. All they see is dollars and cents and the bottom line and saving the wealthy money through tax breaks. Keeping those tax breaks are paramount in their decisions to raise fees (taxes) on those least able to pay them. Nothing else matters but those tax breaks for the wealthy.

  13. Bob S. says:

    My wife and I are planning a month long rv trip to Wisconsin (her birth State), And Minnesota next year. While I applaud running the State park campgrounds as a business, it is not realistic to expect out of state visitors to pay $45 / night plus a reservation fee to camp in a state park. We just returned to Florida from a 38 day trip and didn’t pay anywhere near that price in Colorado, Kentucky or Florida. I would much rather stay In a State Park, but I won’t pay this price.


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