An increase in visitors & coming new building with expanded services provided by Devil’s Lake State Park’s concessions has made headlines. Seems like a good time to review…
On September 28th, Channel 3000.com posted the headline “Devil’s Lake record-breaking attendance boosting Baraboo’s economy”. The article not only announces that officials finally agree that Devil’s Lake State Park has reached the 3 million visitors number, but that the community recognizes that park visitors can contribute positively to the local community’s economy.
A second article from the Baraboo News Republic discusses the acceptance of a donation of $105,000 from the Friends of Devil’s Lake State Park and the Devil’s Lake Concessions Corp, toward a new boathouse with expanded outdoor recreation services.
( I appreciate the links by the way!)
All of this growth and expansion could be great for the local economy of course. It’s also to be expected given the extraordinary growth seen at our national parks as well. With that in mind the DNR, park staff, the Friends group and the community as a whole will need to take a many-faceted approach to how to grow and adapt to the many issues that come increased visitation. (I.e., Volunteers at Glacier NP which has similar numbers, contributed over 63,000 hours* of service in 2016!) You can’t simply take the money and run giggling to the bank. As a recent article from the New York Times points out, our overburdened national parks are suffering under the weight of their own popularity. The Sept 27th article, “National Parks Struggle With a Mounting Crisis: Too Many Visitors” points out that, “…many tourists frustrated and many environmentalists concerned about the toll of overcrowding.” National parks are coping with crumbling infrastructure and maintenance backlogs as well. It’s not all wine and roses!
What’s more, Devil’s Lake State Park, while sharing the high numbers of visitors with many national parks, crams them into a comparable postage stamp of 10,000 acres and manages them with a shadow of the staffing. For example, in the busy season, Glacier National Park which as I mentioned, has comparable visitor numbers to Devil’s Lake, (2,946,681 in 2016) has 453 staff in the busy season*. Devil’s Lake has about 35** (When all vacancies are full). Even if you include concessions staff you wouldn’t come close! This is not sustainable.
Along with a large number of visitors come all the same issues we see at National Parks including long lines, parking problems, and degraded infrastructure. For example, the blacktop trails on the east and west bluffs of the park were never intended for such large numbers of hikers. They are now often little more than crumbling bumps that run down the center of 6-foot wide footpaths. In addition, the natural environment that is primary to the visitor experience seems to have become the lowest priority, if ever thought of at all. (Cars parking on the grass, dogs running loose on trails, ecoli problems on the beaches, wildlife pushed or hunted out, etc.) Damage to the park from overuse will only increase as we build new buildings and offer new recreational services. All of these and many other issues need to come front and center. It’s like managing a restaurant. It’s fine to offer popular new dishes, but you also have to pass the health inspection! We can solve the each of these issues and “rock on” into the future, but they need to become a focus point for everyone involved.
Meanwhile, in the surrounding community, not only do we need to become a larger voice in the planning and care of our “gem” in the Baraboo Hills but we need to expand the story to include our many natural areas here in Sauk County. We also must redouble our efforts to provide the necessary services for our “outdoor” visitors including strategic, safe bike lanes connecting the park to local shops, dining and attractions. We might want to provide shuttles from Downtown Baraboo to Devil’s Lake to improve access for often “traffic locked” park visitors. Local shops should cater more to our outdoor visitor’s needs. (We also need more shops open when park visitors are concluding their adventures on the trails in the evenings. In addition, our local chamber has to draw a fresh underline under outdoor recreation and tourism and become a driving promoter and provider. We need more people with experience in the outdoor recreation industry to lead in our community. We also need to address issues such as employment and affordable housing for new residents and seasonal workers (the list goes on and on..) Certainly, there are new voices every day from folks who understand that we must be proactive as Baraboo’s popularity continues to grow. I have a lot of respect for the folks stepping into leadership roles today. However, we should be taking these recent articles as a wake-up call. We’re going to grow whether we like it or not. We need to get ahead of it. Many communities around our national parks are also having to adapt to the new normal “crush” of park visitors as well, but let’s face it, they’ve had a long head start.
** “Our current Org chart has 10 FTE (Full Time) positions and the naturalist…. We also have about 25 LTE (Limited Term) employees.” – Devil’s Lake State Park Super Intendant, Steve Schmelzer
(Yellowstone National Park Staff) NPS 793 TOTAL (423 temp, 361 year-round) – National Park Service, Visitor Services Office
***Obligatory Disclaimer: This website is NOT associated with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The views expressed in this blog are mine and do not represent the views of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.