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. The ranger, who proved to be none other than Carolyn Morgan, the J.M. Kohler-Terry Andrae superintendent, raised a forefinger and said, “You’re not listening to me.”
Morgan is the only park employee who gets to wear the DNR uniform, and she knows her stuff. 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 the wife of a wealthy Wisconsinite named Theodore “Terry” Andrae donated 122 acres to the State back in 1927 and the park was formed. The Kohler family donated another 280 acres in 1966. It includes two miles of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline, much of it the sandy wetland known as “ridge and swale.” The park today covers 988 acres on the shores of Lake Michigan in Sheboygan County.
Kohler Co. plays 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 Morgan writes in the Kohler-Andrae 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.”
The Walker administration’s state parks privatization program caused tremendous stress for park employees. Retiring employees were not replaced. New hires had not been made. Important routine work — maintaining trails, curtailing invasive species — was being done by Friends groups or not done at all.
As a result, after eight years of Republican control, our Wisconsin State parks looked like Milwaukee County Parks did while Scott Walker was the county executive. The weeds were out of control and everything looked a little ragged and unkempt. Critical maintenance work was 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 visitors are supposed to pick up their own trash and take it with them; 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 his duly appointed 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.