Retirements, Budget Cuts Pile On at State Parks

As 2010 drew to a close, the long careers of three high-ranking state park employees did as well. Rick Ostrowski, park manager at Whitefish Dunes State Park, Gene Tiser, interim superintendent at Peninsula State Park, and Arnie Lindauer, regional district supervisor for the Wisconsin State Parks, all retired at year’s end, taking more than 90 years of combined experience with them.

Tiser had been the interim superintendent at Peninsula for a year, and now the top job at a park that is central to the tourism promotion and economics of Door County trickles down to Erin Brown, park manager at Potawatomi State Park. Brown has received what she called a “very temporary acting assignment” as Peninsula’s acting supervisor. She said she was informed that her assignment could be as short as six weeks.

Dan Schuller, director of the Wisconsin State Parks system for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said the retirements weren’t a complete surprise.

“We have a lot of employees who came into the parks program together in the 1970s as it expanded, and now they’re all retiring together,” he said. “There’s this bubble of very experienced staff that we’re losing, and it came a little bit faster than we expected.”

Schuller concedes that position freezes demanded by the state over the past two years have hampered hiring, but Peninsula is not subject to that freeze.

“We continue to advocate to the new administration to fill these positions, and we continue to recruit to fill those positions,” Schuller said. “In the past two years there was a position freeze, but we are allowed to fill our most critical fills.”

When the economy slumped in 2007, the parks system saw use skyrocket as vacationers sought more affordable getaways. At the same time, budgets were cut and positions frozen, putting a greater burden on the staff that remained.

Schuller said the state parks have seen their budget slashed by about $1 million per year for the last four years.

“We did take a reduction in budget, and at the same time the last three years we’ve had our busiest attendance and revenue ever,” Schuller said.

To maintain services that the public has come to expect, the parks have absorbed those cuts by holding vacancies open. The DNR currently maintains almost 400 vacancies, many of them in the state parks system. The cumulative burden that has placed on the remaining staff has taken a toll.

“In business,” Lindauer said, “cuts in staff come as a result of a cut in demand, but in the case of the parks, demand has never been greater.”

That leaves those left behind trying to meet the expectations of users who demand the same level of service and access that used to be made possible with more staff. If continued, that trend will eventually catch up with the state park system.

At Peninsula, the struggle to find a superintendent isn’t all about money.

“We honestly didn’t have a lot of people that took interest in the Peninsula State Park position,” Schuller said. “The Superintendent is also required to carry law enforcement credentials, and there’s a long period of recruitment before we can fill.”

Finding someone willing to move who was fully qualified was difficult. Schuller did not comment on why Tiser, who applied for the position, was turned down.

As use goes up (camping in the parks is at an all-time high) the parks are relying ever more heavily on friends groups for maintenance and funding. In 2009, the Wisconsin state parks system was aided by 5,597 volunteers who put in over 128,000 hours of work. The parks also received $700,754 in cash donations and $122,543 worth of in-kind contributions.

“Our friends groups have been invaluable,” Lindauer said. “We would see tremendous drops in access and maintenance if it weren’t for their efforts.”

But Bob Dickson, President of the Door County Silent Sports Alliance, said volunteer contributions shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“We’ve got great state parks in Door County, but sometimes it seems like we’re kind of ignored,” he said. “We’re passionate about silent sports, and willing to put the time and effort forward to help improve trails in the parks, but the budget cuts and uncertainty is absolutely going to have an impact on the morale of volunteers and their willingness to step up.”

Door County’s state parks are now in the midst of updating their master plan, and though Schuller said there are no plans to close any parks at this time, many users are nervous that the tune may change as new Governor Scott Walker searches for ways to balance the state budget.

“When the Governor says ‘we’re open for business,’ hopefully that includes the state parks,” Dickson said. An innkeeper and Egg Harbor Trustee, Dickson said the state parks are a huge part of Door County’s tourism sales pitch. “I tell callers all the time that we have five state parks, all offering a different experience and feel. It’s a huge part of our economy and why people come here. Take any of that away, and Door County is going to suffer.”

While freezing state positions to save money makes for good political traction, it leaves park users and partners in a lurch.

“We would like to see improvements to the trails and other aspects of the parks,” Dickson said. “And we would like to help with that, but it’s hard to make plans when you don’t have a permanent person to communicate with.”