Chuck Gipp

The head of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources says the state park system is “heavily used” and DNR director Chuck Gipp says it’s time for lawmakers to consider raising fees to boost the DNR’s budget for outdoor recreation.

“The visitation and use of state parks is growing immensely,” Gipp says. “State park usage has changed. People no just longer want to have a sleeping bag they throw on the ground. They want to have a cabin or they want updated equipment so they can pull in with their ‘fifth-wheel’ (recreational vehicle). Well, in order to allow that to happen, you have to have electrical upgrades.”

Nearly 340,000 overnight guests have checked into state park facilities so far this year. Gipp wants new ‘dynamic pricing’ authority to set different rates for camping spaces and cabin rentals based on demand. That means he could raise rental fees during high-demand periods, like holiday weekends, or reduce park camping fees during slow periods to attract more visitors.

“We’re not trying to price ourself out because no motel rents rooms if they’re overpriced,” Gipp says. “We want to have heads in beds, but we also have to have the flexibility to get the dollars necessary.”

Under existing law, Gipp’s agency must go through a lengthy process to establish rules that limit rental rates for camp sites, RV hook-ups and cabin rentals within the state park system.

There’s a growing reliance on fees to run the DNR, since the agency’s allocation of general state tax dollars is half of what it was a decade ago.

“We know what drives the budget in Iowa,” Gipp says. “It’s education and it’s Medicaid and health care, so the rest of the people, the entities, make the sacrifices we can, do the reorganization that we have, but I think it’s important to note.”

Gipp’s department manages 68 state parks and recreation areas along with four state forests and 600 miles of trails for hiking, biking, snowmobiling and horseback riding.

“For the initiative of ‘Let’s have a healthier Iowa,’ that’s incredibly important,” Gipp says.

In addition to facility rental fees within the state parks, state fees for hunting, fishing and trapping licenses haven’t been raised for 14 years. The Iowa House overwhelmingly voted in April to give Gipp’s agency the authority to raise those fees. The proposal is eligible for consideration in the Iowa Senate in 2018. The money raised from hunting and fishing fees is reserved to improve habitat and pay conservation officer salaries.