Outdoors

Time to remake camp

Despite budget and staff shortages, state park officials have been busy getting ready for Memorial Day Weekend. The Blue Water Trail will be ready for canoeing and kayaking at Cross Timbers State Park.
Despite budget and staff shortages, state park officials have been busy getting ready for Memorial Day Weekend. The Blue Water Trail will be ready for canoeing and kayaking at Cross Timbers State Park. File photo

By Friday, tents, camping trailers and massive RVs will be gathered like small cities around most Kansas lakes.

So it's gone for years at Kansas state parks as campers use Memorial Day weekend as the kickoff to summer fun.

And as it's gone for years, state park managers and staffs face growing challenges to get the parks ready for the onslaught.

Money and man-power are well below a few years ago, while operating costs are higher.

Still....

"We'll be ready," said Seth Turner, El Dorado State Park manager. "Somehow we always manage to pull it off."

The 4,000-acre park with about 1,100 campsites is Kansas' largest in terms of land size and attendance. It has 40 buildings, 25 miles of trails, 98 miles of roads and numerous boat ramps and docks to be readied.

A staff of about six full-time employees did most of the preparation work. Turner hired three seasonal workers last week — that's about a month later than most years, because of budget concerns.

Dealing with less labor is something park managers have done since the state closed most rural correctional facilities about two years ago.

Prior to that, Kansas parks had access to up to 100 inmates.

Jody Schwartz, Cheney State Park manager, once averaged five per day. Like most parks he now has none.

Kim Jones, Cross Timbers and Fall River State Parks manager, lost the equivalent of about 15 full-time employees when a nearby facility was closed. That basically cut her man-power by about 75 percent.

Both Turner and Jones said some creativity is helping them this year.

Turner's park has joined El Dorado and Butler County in the assorted costs of busing a few inmates from a Winfield facility.

Jones is letting some campers earn their sites.

"We have people who want to camp but can't afford the fees," she said. "So if they'll do some mowing in their campground they can have their site for free. That gives us 10-12 hours of mowing per week. That's a huge help."

Managers try to take full advantage of state and federal grants for things like trails, boat ramps and docks.

Creativity spreads over into state park mechanics, too.

El Dorado has tractors older than Turner, 33. Many tires are as smooth as beach balls.

"We just keep taking good care of things," he said. "We have tractors with 4,000 hours on their meter and I know they've had multiple hour meters."

But in the end, the budget is the continual dark cloud over every manager's head.

Managers feel thankful the legislature again granted about $3.4 million in state general fund money. That makes up about 30 percent of the state parks' total budget.

Still, Turner's research shows Kansas' state parks are among the best attended in the nation but are at or near the bottom for funding.

"We're always thinking about what costs the least amount of money but does our parks the most amount of good," Turner said.

Many major improvements are on hold. Some maintenance projects may not end up looking like before.

"Improvisation at its best," Turner said as he looked at a black-roofed restroom patched with a few white shingles. "I had plenty of white shingles so it saved me buying black shingles and it fixed the roof."

Lesser-used areas won't get mowed as often as prime spots.

He said the majority of campers and park users understand the ongoing challenges.

Many help out as best they can with keeping things pickedup and being patient and supportive with state park staff.

Jones said the best way the public can be supportive is to keep using the state parks.

"We need to have a good year and get a lot of usage," she said. "As long as people keep coming to the parks and paying their fees I think we'll be OK."

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