Devil's Lake 1 (copy)

People climb near Devil's Doorway on the East Bluff Trail at Devil's Lake State Park in 2007.

There’s no need to get hysterical about Scott Walker’s proposal to cut funding for Wisconsin’s state parks.

If the governor really wanted to undermine the popularity of places as wonderful as Whitefish Dunes, Devil’s Lake and Blue Mound, he would have banned alcohol.

As a native of Illinois — where alcohol is banned in most state parks — that’s why I and the rest of my Chicago-area crew always used to head north to camp.

No, Walker’s shot at the state park system takes a different destructive tack.

By hobbling parks with funding cuts, Walker takes aim at the businesses that depend, in large part, on state park users.

In addition to the beer run, the mostly mom-and-pop businesses just outside the borders of state parks serve purposes as varied as bike rental and ice cream consumption.

My family and I have always been partial to Whitefish Dunes State Park on the quiet — i.e., Lake Michigan — side of the Door County peninsula.

And going to Whitefish also puts us in the vicinity of the Town Hall Bakery, J.J.’s restaurant and Bley’s Grocery in the town of Jacksonport, as well as the absolutely awesome Jacksonport Cherry Fest, where last year vendors sold everything from dog toys to American Girl doll clothes and we could gorge ourselves on cherry brats, cherry kolaches, cherry sundaes and, of course, cherries.

Jacksonport town chairman Alvin Birnschein said Whitefish Dunes visitors help support Jacksonport businesses, although he didn’t know to what extent.

“You notice more in the winter for us,” said Bley’s co-owner Wayne Bley, when there’s enough snow to make cross-country skiing at Whitefish attractive. “Everybody helps because it’s quiet up here.”

Indeed, visitors are a much bigger help on the bustling bay side of Door County, where most of the county’s businesses and vacation rentals are located and where, Birnschein pointed out, Peninsula State Park offers camping.

People are more likely to patronize restaurants and shops within walking distance of where they’ve pitched their tents.

“Door County’s five state parks certainly play an important role in our tourism economy here,” said Jon Jarosh, director of communications and public relations for the Door County Visitor Bureau.

Walker’s plan is to force state parks to become self-sustaining, largely by increasing campsite and entrance fees.

But cutting state funding in favor of higher fees is just “passing the cost on to the individual person that’s coming up there,” Birnschein said, and “there’s a limit to what people will pay to do things.”

Ultimately, Walker’s approach could lead to fewer park visitors with fewer resources to spend at park-dependent businesses.

“Hopefully the overwhelmingly positive economic benefits that tourism brings to our state, including through our state park system, will help guide those in charge of crafting the next state budget,” Jarosh said.

You don’t have to go all the way to Door — home to the most state parks of any Wisconsin county — to get a sense for the danger in degrading parks, though.

Pluma Cool — who runs the Blue Mounds Grocery on the road to Blue Mound State Park in Dane and Iowa counties — said her business wouldn’t be viable if not for the people the park brings in.

“We have a lot of park traffic here,” she said, with park visitors making up 15 to 20 percent of her business in the summer.

While funding cuts to parks, the UW System, public schools and Wisconsin public broadcasting are among the governor’s budget proposals garnering the most ink, Walker’s also proposed a $55 million program to make economic development loans.

This comes after the creation, in his first term, of the the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., a quasi-private agency that funnels taxpayer assistance to businesses such as Ashley Furniture, which over the years has gotten or been approved for millions in tax credits and was in the news recently after it was accused of some 38 federal safety violations, including one that allegedly resulted in a worker losing three of his fingers in a woodworking machine.

From an economic development perspective, the effects of taxpayer assistance for state parks aren’t all that different from the effects of taxpayer assistance for companies like Ashley.

Supporting state parks boosts job creation, profit-making and general economic activity, too — usually with the added benefit that no one gets their fingers cut off.

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.


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