Will Higher Fees Keep Attendance Down?

Will Higher Fees Keep Attendance Down?

Will higher camping and admission fees at Devil’s Lake State Park keep visitor numbers down? A recent opinion from the Racine Journal Times suggests it might. Well, I’ve been wandering these trails for quite some while and I don’t agree. Here’s my take…

First, as you have probably heard, the Wisconsin DNR is set to raise camping and daily admission fees at select state parks including of course Devil’s Lake. I won’t go into the details here as there are plenty of good articles out there including this one from Lee Bergquist over at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. What I want to focus on today is the claim that raising fees will ” help the DNR manage capacity”.

I’ve got a simple little analogy for you. (You can try this at home!). Get a quart jar. Then take a gallon of water and fill the jar, but don’t stop pouring until your gallon jug is empty. Obviously, the little quart jar is “over capacity” and you’re soaking wet! Now, let’s do something to solve the problem. Let’s replace the gallon jug with a half-gallon container, (Something like a 2-liter bottle.) and run the experiment again. Again keep pouring until your two-liter bottle is empty. Better result? As you can see the quart jar is just as “over capacity”, even though we reduced the water trying to get in by half. During peak season, Devil’s Lake State Park is way over capacity. There are simply so many people who want to come for the day or to camp during those peak times, that even if block half of them out through higher fees, it will have no effect on the park. The park will still be as swamped as ever.

Allow me to digress…

At Devil’s Lake State Park, visitor numbers are reported anywhere from 2.5 to 3 million per year. However, in talking to anyone who would address the subject with me, I believe these numbers are substantially low. But for the sake of discussion let’s accept the 2.8 million visitor number that was given by the park superintendent as a “year-to-date” to our local paper in November of 2017. (You can read that here.)  So 2.8 Million it is!

Devil’s Lake State Park’s master plan, dated Feb. 25th, 1982 (Yeah, maybe it’s time for an update!)  suggests the goal is to manage 1.4 million visitors. (While “imposing the least possible impact on the intrinsic values of the park”.) The number of visitors at any given time would be “controlled by the number of parking stalls and camping spaces provided.” This means, no spaces, no admission. In fact, later in the plan, it calls out the issue of people parking anywhere their car will fit when all the stalls are full. So maybe when talking about “managing capacity” we should be looking at the current and easily accessible master plan. We can ask, “Is the current (1982) management plan being enforced?” Are the rangers (And now wardens) keeping folks from parking “in every spot large enough to accommodate their vehicle”? Worse are they actually encouraging visitors to park in any open space on the grass and along roadsides?”  What’s your experience?

Now here’s thing; It’s complicated. If we want to talk about the park system needing more money and how it gets there, that’s a good conversation. Allowing people of all incomes access? Another great discussion and one that I feel strongly about as well. However, the bit about fee increases to managing capacity? I don’t buy it. It’s the “filling a quart jar with a gallon jug” thing. It doesn’t add up. Devil’s Lake is swamped at peak and for every family you price out, there will be two more waiting to get in. And they’ll probably still have to park on the grass when they get in.

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**Just a reminder, DevilsLakeStatePark.com is owned by Skillet Creek Media and is not associated with the Wisconsin DNR in any way. My opinions do not represent those of the park or the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.




  1. Beth

    We find that the park is way overused, with cars parking all over the grass areas, along the road to the park and in places that should not be allowed. The restrooms are often full to overflowing with trash due to a lack of trash cans through out the park and the north most bathroom has not been operating for years with no apparent plan in place to fix or replace it. The park and lake bear the burdens of these situations with elevated e coli and rubbish everywhere! Hike up on the bluffs and take a look down in between the boulders and you will see piles of trash…go for a swim or hike and trash is all over. We hike and bring a little trash bag when we go and we are always hauling out a full bag. The staff are wonderful but clearly overwhelmed at times with the load of people they navigate through on any given day. Let’s contact our state legislators to request that the funds for our state parks is reinstated. If we want our parks to be well maintained, let’s invest in their upkeep.

  2. Cathy

    Beth, glad you are a person who takes the time to pick up trash also. Wondering if there might be a high school age group in the area who need hours to complete their volunteer time that could join in and clean up the park. Problem is someone has to be there to supervise and sign their certificates. We have a few groups that clean the beaches in Milwaukee. Just an idea. Might spark others to join in.

  3. Author

    There are a variety of volunteer groups that pick up trash and do other trail work at the park each year. Anyone who wants to do it simply has to contact the park. I’m sure high school groups could join in on volunteer days where there are folks about who could supervise. Just contact Contact Sue Johansen, the Park Naturalist at Susan.JohansenMayoleth@wisconsin.gov or call (608) 356-8301 Ext. 140 and she’d be able to hook them up.

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