A park ranger with the DNR patch on her uniform became impatient with me as we checked out the map of Kohler-Andrae state park. She raised a forefinger and said, “You’re not listening to me.” I somehow had the notion that because the park is known as Kohler-Andrae, the Kohler Company played some role in its day-to-day operations due to a process known as the “privatization” of Wisconsin’s state parks established under the Walker regime.
But that is not what “privatization” of state parks means.
Kohler-Andrae is so-called because a wealthy Wisconsinite named Theodore “Terry” Andrae donated much of the land back in 1927. The Kohler family donated another 280 acres in 1966. The park, which covers 988 acres on the shores of Lake Michigan in Sheboygan County, is known officially as Kohler-Andrae but is still sometimes called Terry Andrae.
Kohler has no role in the day-to-operations of the park, nor does it provide any financial backing. “Privatization” of state parks simply means that there is no money available from state coffers to support them. The parks must be self-sustaining. Or, as Carolyn Morgan, the J.M. Kohler-Terry Andrae superintendent, writes in the park visitor guide, the “DNR has changed the way that Wisconsin State Parks are funded. This change means that Wisconsin State Parks must provide for their own operation expenses, based on revenues generated in the parks.” She also informs visitors that, “As of January 2018, Park Rangers are no longer sworn officers.”
Maybe that’s why the ranger was so sensitive about her authority. She’s been demoted from an officer of the law to a glorified park security guard.
The Walker administration’s state parks privatization program has caused tremendous stress for park employees. Retiring employees have not replaced. New hires have not been made. Important routine work — maintaining trails, curtailing invasive species — is being done by Friends groups or not done at all.
As a result, after eight years of Republican control, our Wisconsin State parks look like Milwaukee County Parks did while Scott Walker was the county executive. The weeds are out of control and everything looks a little ragged and unkempt. Critical maintenance work is not being done.
Visitors to the parks feel the bite in their pocket books. Camping fees nearly doubled at some parks and rose 30% overall, according to a representative of the Sierra Club. Many parks now require that campers “pack in and pack out” — meaning they are supposed to pick up their own trash and take it with them because trash collection is no longer available except at the so-called “premium” parks. You can imagine how well that works.
But the parks now have the opportunity for a comeback. Under our new governor Tony Evers and new DNR Secretary Preston Cole, we have a chance to restore funding for Wisconsin’s magnificent parks and to have a DNR that works for all the people of this state and not just the rich. Please let your state legislators know how important parks funding is to you and your family.
And make sure you attend the Wisconsin Loves Parks event on May 11 at Kohler-Andrae. Sponsored by the Sierra Club and including a total of six parks across the State, this event will give you an opportunity to learn more about your parks and what you can do to help restore funding.