The airwaves are already clogging with the sound of office-seekers complaining about the size of government, but those candidates aren’t spending much time talking to folks from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR has been operating with about 300 positions unfilled for several years, according to spokesperson Laurel Steffes. With the economy stagnant and state government strapped for cash, state agencies are operating under a position freeze. This means new positions aren’t added, and positions left vacant when people retire or leave the department aren’t filled. Steffes said holding positions open is the best way the DNR can save costs in the budget crunch.
“Position freezes are a good way to do that,” she said. “We save the salary, but we don’t lose the position permanently.”
But such cost cutting has real consequences. At Fish Creek’s Peninsula State Park, it means not hiring a new superintendent. Peninsula is a virtual city in summer, with a population that peaks at 2,000, plus a daily influx of thousands of daily visitors. The park is home to a lighthouse, golf course, theatre, and one of the Midwest’s most popular and well-known beaches. It also hosts the Door County Half Marathon in May.
After long-time superintendent Tom Blackwood retired in December, Gene Tiser was installed as acting superintendent. Eight months later, he is still slapped with the acting tag, and it’s not clear when the DNR will promote him or hire someone else as Blackwood’s permanent replacement.
Arnie Lindauer is the District Supervisor for the Wisconsin State Parks System. He oversees Door County’s five state parks and said the hiring delays put a heavy burden on state park staff.
“In Gene’s case, the superintendent’s duties are added to his old job, so he’s asked to fill two positions,” Lindauer said. “But he doesn’t get paid anything more. My hat goes off to him and all of our park staff for the work they do to maintain the parks and provide services.”
Lindauer has worked for the DNR for 30 years and said the parks are getting more use, with less staff, than ever before. Vacationing in state parks is relatively inexpensive, and when the economy crashed, families flocked back to camping to save money. Visitors to state parks rose 7 percent from 2008 to 2009, and indications through July of this year show another 7 percent increase.
Lindauer feels the burden too. In addition to his supervisor role, he is the acting superintendent for High Cliff State Park in Sherwood. Forty of the system’s 200 full-time equivalent positions are currently vacant. That’s 20 percent of the system’s positions that sit either unfilled or are slapped with an interim tag.
This comes as Peninsula, and the county’s other state parks, begin the process of updating their master plans. Those plans are integral tools that guide park decisions on a wide range of issues and requests, including access, hunting, expanding and managing trail systems, and inventories of flora, fauna, and wildlife.
User groups turn to a park’s superintendent for answers, and though all accounts are that Tiser is doing yeoman’s work at Peninsula, it’s tough to develop long-term, trusted working relationships when you’re wearing an interim tag.
“How do you, as a user group, develop a relationship with a state park?” Lindauer asked. “You need someone to talk to who is the person in charge.”
Lindauer emphasized that he is not complaining, just being factual. He’s not ignorant to the state’s budget position and knows that there is a part to play for every department. But like it or not, he says, the cuts have an impact.
“Too often the parks are looked at as an amenity, not as a vital part of a community’s economy,” Lindauer said.
The role of Peninsula State Park in the Northern Door economy can’t be overstated. It is the centerpiece of its two most popular tourism communities, Ephraim and Fish Creek, and many businesses and real estate pitches tout their proximity to the park in their advertising. Bike shops, motels, and restaurants flourish at the park’s edge.
“It’s a huge asset,” said Rachel Willems, tourism administrator for the Ephraim Business Council. “We’ve talked about strengthening the association between Ephraim and the park to capitalize on it even more.”
But those benefits aren’t often mentioned when it comes time to talk budgets at the state level. Positions in parks and recreation are viewed as superfluous, even a position at the head of Peninsula, the state’s second most visited park and its most popular camping destination.
Steffes said that the DNR is now reviewing some positions for critical fills, but hiring will move slowly.
“Even as the economy picks up, state government will probably be a little behind the general economy in picking those positions back up,” she said, because tax collection will lag behind any economic up-tick.
Until then, Gene Tiser will wear an interim tag at Peninsula State Park. And as politicians talk of slashing the size of government, voters will applaud, blissfully unaware that such slashing often starts at our most treasured assets.