Despite soggy start, 2009 tourism season still inspiring optimism
Don Franz flips a burger as he cooks dinner for his wife Sharon Tuesday night in Custer State Park. The couple from Champlin, MN said they've been traveling and camping for 52 years and said the Black Hills are one of their favorite destinations. (Photo by Seth A. McConnell/Journal staff)

Campers are paying a bit more this year for a night's stay in state parks, a fee hike designed to reduce the park division's reliance on state general funds and help balance the budget.

And at Custer State Park, a change in the entrance fee will help pay for work to control mountain pine beetle infestations in the 71,000-acre park.

Nightly camping fees increased $2 in December at state park campgrounds, including those in Custer State Park. The most common camp site with electricity in Custer State Park, the premier park in the state system, is now $24 a night. The most common camping fee for a site in state parks outside of that park is now $18.

A selection of other campsites and camping cabins fees also went up $2.

The overall package of camping fee increases was approved last fall by the state Game, Fish & Parks Commission in response to a legislative directive at the end of the 2010 state Legislature. Along with the camping fee increase, the cost of staying at group lodges, which are available at a handful of parks, increased by $25 a night. The cost of staying in a group lodge varies from park to park. The fee to reserve a group picnic shelter went to $20 from $9.

In a year when Gov. Dennis Daugaard is making cuts in order to eliminate a budget deficit of more than $100 million, the Parks and Recreation Division of the state Game, Fish & Parks Department is getting creative with fees to help out and still make its own budget work.

"The Appropriations Committee asked us to come up with a target reduction in general funds of $500,000 for this year," said Doug Hofer, director of the Division of Parks and Recreation.

Parks officials developed a package of camping-fee increases designed to generate an additional $500,000. That allowed a reduction of $500,000 in general funds for the parks division operating budget for the fiscal year beginning in July.

"We rented over 260,000 campsite nights in 2010. Take that times $2, and it should generate more than $520,000 in 2011," Hofer said.

The group lodge increase will raise about $16,000 more a year, and the picnic shelter reservation hike about $4,000.

The package was part of former Gov. Mike Rounds' budget recommendation before leaving office in January. But Gov. Dennis Daugaard asked for additional cuts when he offered a revised budget. So the parks division reduced spending by another $150,000, primarily by deferring certain maintenance. That brought a total general fund cut to $650,000.

In addition to those fee increases, Custer State Park eliminated its seven-day individual entrance permit, which cost $6. It maintained the seven-day vehicle permit for $15 and the year-long seasonal permit, which is good for all state parks, at $28.

Hofer said going to two permits will make it easier for park entrance personnel. And the change to just two park entrance fee options at Custer State Park could raise $365,000 a year.

"The bulk of that will be used toward our efforts at Sylvan Lake -- Needles Highway to remove infected trees before the beetles can fly and spread the following spring," Hofer said.

In state parks other than Custer, visitors will still have the option of the $28 seasonal permit, an individual daily permit for $4 or a vehicle daily permit for $6.

Overall, very little of the state Game, Fish & Parks Department's $82 million budget comes from general state tax dollars. The Wildlife Division is essentially self-sustaining on hunting and fishing license revenues, federal excise taxes on sporting goods and other sources.

The Parks and Recreation division gets a small percentage of its budget from tax dollars in the state general fund. After the $650,000 cut, the division will get about $2.15 million in general funds in the next fiscal year. That's about 11 percent of its operating budget of $18 million. The overall parks budget will be $27 million.

The GF&P Commission made one increase in hunting license fees this year. The mountain lion license went to $25 from $15. GF&P sold 2,332 lion permits.

That was the first fee increase for hunting and fishing licenses since 2005.

None of the fee hikes has stirred much controversy so far.

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"There really haven't been any negative comments," Hofer said.

Custer State Park superintendent Richard Miller agreed.

"We haven't had any comments at all," he said.

They also haven't had many campers so far this year. That should change quickly, though, as the main park season approaches.

"There are a few around. We've had a couple of (camping) cabins rented, and I've seen a hard-sided camper or two," Miller said. "We actually had a tent camper in here for four or five days in some pretty rough weather."

The main park season starts in about two months.

Custer State Park had a record number of campers in 2010. And there's no sign the $2 increase has affected interest in campers for this season, Hofer said.

"Based on our reservations, we're pace to exceed last year in camping," he said.

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournal.com

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