Mighty Repairs : Utah’s state parks are very popular, but in need of some improvements

Editor’s note: Fred Hayes, director of Utah State Parks, passed away in early March. We had the privilege of interviewing him a few short weeks before his death. Hayes was known for his passion for Utah’s amazing state parks, and so we’ve elected to include his comments for this story.

The Utah Office of Tourism launched a $4.6 million campaign two years ago called “Road to the Mighty.” It was an effort to promote state parks to visitors coming to see Utah’s Mighty Five national parks, and judging by the numbers, it’s been a great success.

In fiscal year 2016, the state reported 5,175,615 visits to state parks. Last year, that number jumped up by more than half a million, to 5,690,677. For the first six months of fiscal 2018 (through December), 3,570,592 visitors had enjoyed one of Utah’s 44 state parks.

Those totals have been a financial boom to the Beehive State in many ways. But with that popularity and subsequent usage has come the need to make some long overdue improvements to many parks’ infrastructures.

“We’ve had double-digit increases in visitation, and that means buildings take a beating, picnic areas get worn down, and restrooms are impacted greatly,” said Fred Hayes, who was the director of the Utah Division of State Parks until his death in March 2018. “Some of the problems are easy for visitors to see, but many others aren’t—like those underground. And they are among the most urgent needs.”

Maintenance issues

When the National Park Service celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2016, the agency conducted a study to analyze its own infrastructure challenges. The study, conducted by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), found the Park Service had been deferring a long list of maintenance items, which created a backlog of needs totaling nearly $12 billion. That amount was five times larger than its budget that year.

Utah’s parks have reportedly been much more closely maintained.

“Our crews have done a fantastic job keeping up on the day-to-day stuff so it doesn’t completely wear out,” Hayes said. “We just celebrated our 60th anniversary, so some of our facilities go back 50 or 60 years, and they’re just reaching the limits of their natural lives.”

Among the most common problems are water systems with corroded pipes, sewer systems that seep water, cracked or missing tiles in some restrooms, and asphalt that needs repair or replacement on roadways through the parks. Picnic tables and pavilions suffer wear and tear as well. Most of these needs are big-ticket items.

Still, Utah fares much better than the national parks system, where estimates are that 6,700 miles of trails and roadways are rated as in “poor” or “seriously deficient” condition.

But Hayes said that in Utah, there’s a good system in place to address those needs.

“In 2011, during the budget crunch time, the Legislature asked us to work toward self-sufficiency,” he said. “We began paying our own way through fees and gate receipts, and at the same time, we made some fairly serious cutbacks. We had to, because the federal money we were receiving was cut from $12 million to $4 million overnight.”

He said state parks are doing “better than ever” now, with the parks’ “savings account,” generated by user fees, totaling almost $20 million. During the 2018 Legislative Session, Gov. Gary Herbert requested $10.3 million of that money. He said the investment in Utah’s state parks now makes sound financial sense, saying visitors to state parks can experience the beauty of national parks, with smaller crowds.

“Under state finance rules, an agency can’t spend any money without permission of the legislature and the governor,” Hayes said. “It’s part of the governmental process to get budget requests, which Gov. Herbert has included in his proposed budget. Some of that money will go towards the day-to-day operations, but a lot of it will go to the more critical situations.”

Planning in advance

Critical situations can change from park to park. On Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake, park manager Jeremy Shaw’s biggest challenge has been electrical power.

“I think there’s been relatively little [money spent on maintenance] since the initial investment,” he said. “We routinely have power outages, simply because the electrical wire underground is worn out. We call Rocky Mountain Power, they come and patch things up, and a month later, the power’s out again.”

Shaw has been at the park for seven years. He said he watched crews dig up the lines the first time a power outage occurred after he began at the park.

“They showed me the problem. The wire was good when it was put in during the late ‘60s, but it had a 20-year warranty and obviously we’re way past that,” he said.

As with other state parks, visitation has blossomed on Antelope Island.

“We were averaging about 185,000 visitors a year, but in 2017 we had 430,000 visitors. And the visitation is now a year-round thing. When I started, our season used to run primarily from May to October. We just did a report that showed our vehicle count from January to January, last year to this, was up 96 percent. Revenue was up 131 percent as well.”

Shaw is hoping that if the parks’ request is approved, $750,000 of the $10.3 million will be earmarked for Antelope.

Hayes said the Division of State Parks has been proactive in addressing infrastructure needs.

“We pencil things out about five years in advance,” he said. “We believe that over the next five to 10 years, we can make major investments and bring everything up to snuff. A deferred maintenance list has always been in place, but when we were asked to pay our own way, some of those items got shelved. We feel the restricted money in our saving account will continue to grow year after year to help us get a handle on those projects.”

It’s not just about maintaining the status quo, of course. Hayes said it’s difficult to completely forecast future usage numbers, though estimates call for a 13-15 percent increase over the next few years.

“In some cases, we’re simply running out of room in some parks. So, we’re trying to broaden the season. We have plenty of room during weekdays, so we’ve been offering deals to entice more usage then—lowering overnight camping fees, for example. More and more people are working from home, so they could visit the parks on non-weekend days. It depends on the organic growth of our population. Our facilities are a great way to take the family and enjoy something. And we’re user-friendly. It’s easy to get a trailer or tent set up in a campground. Our parks are clean and safe, and we really want to focus on the families.”

Upgrades and additions

In February, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation asked the state parks division to take over its contract for Echo Reservoir, near Coalville. Then the Utah State Legislature officially made Echo Reservoir the state’s 44th state park during the 2018 session. The Echo Resort closed last fall when longtime proprietor Joye Ray sold the remainder of her concession contract to the Bureau.

“For years, it was managed by the private concessionaire,” Hayes said. “She decided it was time to retire and the Bureau asked us to take it over. As we’ve evaluated it, we see a good opportunity to manage it and do some redevelopment. We’re working on plans for that now, and the Bureau is a great partner.”

Plans call for a $2 million investment to upgrade the marina, boat ramp and ground structures. Its campground is also very popular, and Hayes said the Bureau of Reclamation has offered some matching money to go along with that $2 million investment.

Hayes said the reservoir is a popular place for fishing, boating, sailing and swimming, and particularly for paddlecraft.

“That’s the hottest sport going right now,” he said. “The beauty of Echo is that as the water levels change, you can drive right down the water’s edge. That makes it very convenient for boaters and paddlers.”

Echo is the first addition to the state parks system since 2003, when Sand Hollow Reservoir in Washington County came into the fold. The addition will help with the overflow from Jordanelle and Rockport State Parks.

“It’s proximity to a town is an extra plus,” Hayes said. “It’s near the end of the Union Pacific Rail Trail that runs towards Park City. It’s a perfect addition to our system.”

Remembering Fred Hayes

Fred Hayes, who served as the director of the Division of State Parks and Recreation from 2012 to 2018, passed away in early March at the age of 58. He is remembered by colleagues, Utah legislators and Gov. Gary Herbert as a passionate advocate for Utah’s parks.

“We have lost a dear friend and a passionate and dedicated supporter of recreation in Utah. Fred will be sorely missed,” said Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, in a statement about Hayes. “Fred was dearly loved by his employees in State Parks and everyone at DNR that had an opportunity to work with him.”

Hayes began his state parks career in 1982 as a seasonal park ranger aide at Starvation State Park. He held numerous positions with the division, including park ranger, nature center education specialist, off-highway vehicle coordinator and deputy director.

Hayes was appointed division director in 2012 and has been instrumental in significantly increasing the profile of Utah’s 44 state parks. As a result, the Division of State Parks has experienced record park attendance and profitability annually and has aggressively been developing and creating new recreational opportunities statewide.

During the 2018 Legislative Session, Utah lawmakers unanimously passed a resolution to honor the life and service of Hayes. The resolution commended him for his 35-year career with the Division of State Parks and called for the renaming of Starvation State Park to the Fred Hayes State Park.