State of the Parks: System overview


About this series

With taxpayer funding for Wisconsin’s state parks slowly shrinking, parks are increasingly reliant on revenue from visitors, and donated money and time from volunteer groups. This project, which examines the impact of this shifting fiscal picture, was produced by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism in collaboration with a UW-Madison reporting class taught by Professor Deborah Blum.

TODAY: This summer, Wisconsin’s state park campgrounds will complete the largest expansion of electric sites in decades — a response to growing demands from campers and to economic pressures.

PART TWO: With budgets tight, Wisconsin State Parks are increasingly relying on donated time and money from volunteer groups known as Friends of the Wisconsin State Parks.

History: Wisconsin’s first state park, Interstate Park, was established in 1900. The state Legislature appointed a board to begin developing a statewide park system in 1909.

Size: The parks division of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources operates 74 recreational properties, including 46 parks, 14 state trails, 2 national scenic trails, 8 state forests, and 4 recreational areas. In a 2012 study of state park programs nationally, Wisconsin ranked 22nd in the number of properties and 23rd in total acreage. The state parks’ 15 million visitors ranked 15th nationally. Illinois ranked fifth, and Minnesota was 27th.

Budget: In the late 1990s, the state Legislature changed a law that required the general purpose fund to provide at least half the park program’s budget. Taxpayer funding has decreased slowly since then. So far, increased revenues from users have been able to make up the difference, park officials said.

Park and forest visitors provide almost three-quarters of the roughly $23 million budget. General taxpayer funds will provide about one fifth of the budget through 2015. The entire parks budget made up less than a one tenth of 1 percent of the state’s 2011-2013 budget.

User fees: At $25, Wisconsin’s annual state park resident vehicle sticker is one of the most affordable in the country. Campsites cost between $12 and $15, depending on the park, with an additional $5 fee for electricity access.

Infrastructure: Wisconsin’s parks have significantly less infrastructure — like electric campsites, cabins and lodges — than most other states. Many users see the rustic nature of Wisconsin’s parks as a positive, but the lack of upgraded amenities leaves the park system with fewer ways to earn more money.

Sources: Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau Informational Paper 62, 2013, the National Association of State Park Directors Statistical Report of State Part Operations: 2011-2012, and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources staff.

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