As funding cuts loom, Iowa state park operations in jeopardy

MASON CITY, Iowa — In 2009, following one of the worst floods in recent state history, the state allocated about $22 million for the Iowa DNR.

Now, the DNR has around $11.17 million in state funds to work with, and officials say any further cuts could drastically impact the operation of state parks, including those locally.

According to the DNR’s latest budget presentation to the state Legislature’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, 43 percent of the state’s appropriations are allocated to state parks. Another 15 percent funds the agency’s forestry division.

Tammy Domonoske, park manager for McIntosh Woods State Park in Ventura, said via email she will not know how her park will be impacted until state legislators determine how much will be allocated in the upcoming fiscal year.

Two local park rangers – Josh Rembe from Clear Lake State Park and Michael Strauser from Pilot Knob State Park in Forest City – deferred comments about funding to Alex Murphy, a DNR spokesman.

Murphy agreed with Domonoske, saying “until a bill is passed for deappropriations, we can’t speculate exactly how it will impact state parks.”

DNR Director Chuck Gipp, however, expressed concerns if further cuts are made, the Globe Gazette reported.

“Any further reduction of GF (general fund) support will make it increasingly difficult to staff all of our parks,” Gipp said in an email.

Outside of state parks, other DNR officials said while they are impacted by state funding, the consequences probably wouldn’t be as severe. Jeff Vansteenburg, supervisor for the DNR’s Mason City field office, said the department has 260 different funding streams, ranging between numerous state and federal programs.

According to Vansteenberg, the complexity of these mechanisms means different areas of the DNR need to meet certain federal and state regulations to receive funds. He added that 15 full-time employees work in his office, down one employee since 2009.

“A lot of people think the DNR has one big bag of money and that everyone reaches into it,” Vansteenburg said about funding streams. “But that’s not the case.”

Vansteenburg believes the recreation and environmental side of the department may see more of an impact, which includes state parks. T.J. Herrick, who manages the Ventura Marsh, agreed with that assessment.

Herrick, who said there are five full-time employees in his office, said a bill in the Legislature could bring more money into the department, specifically for those on the recreation side.

“We haven’t had a license increase fee since the ’90s,” Herrick said. “So the cost of everything has gone up, and we’re doing more with less all the time.”

According to Herrick and other DNR officials, however, the impact across the DNR – while state and federal funds have dipped – won’t be as detrimental as what state parks may have to deal with, especially if the state decides to allocate less money to the department.

State parks already may be stretched thin, according to DNR statistics. Almost 40 percent of all parks have less than one full-time employee, and 37 percent have exactly one full-time employee. Currently, there are 112 full-time employees scattered across all of Iowa’s state parks.

That doesn’t include seasonal staff, which dropped from 240 people in 2016 to 150 people last year.

According to both Strauser and Herrick, state parks heavily rely on state appropriations to operate.

“(I believe) there is no other funding mechanism for the state parks,” Herrick said. “In Iowa, we don’t have a user fee for parks, and that’s basically what a hunting and fishing license is for, to charge those who use that.”

Deb Kozel, a senior fiscal legislative analyst in Iowa’s legislative services agency, said the only park facility she knows has closed so far is the Springbrook Education Center at Springbrook State Park in Guthrie Center, which shut its doors last year.

Given current staffing levels, Kozel said the DNR may not be able to replace any park rangers who step down – and thus, some parks’ services could be shut down.

“They (DNR officials) have said if the money keeps quitting … if a ranger were to retire or whatever, they would have to close that state park,” Kozel said. “But that hasn’t happened yet, to the best of my knowledge.”