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BOISE — Idaho started doubling camping fees for out-of-staters at its five most popular state parks on Thursday, as required by a new law passed by the Legislature this year, but it will be at least a year before we see if it helps Idahoans get spots in the popular parks — because all five, including Ponderosa in McCall, booked up immediately for the whole summer as soon as reservations opened back in December.

“It’s kind of a scramble when the nine-month book-ahead window opens,” said state parks spokesman Craig Quintana. “It books up within the hour.”

Existing reservations are grandfathered in under the law, HB 93, and their fees won’t rise.

“The sad fact is, if we could magically snap our fingers and double our inventory, we would still sell out,” Quintana said. “We need more camping, pretty much across our system.”

State lawmakers this year did approve funding for a new 50-space campground at the Billingsley Creek unit of Thousand Springs State Park in the Magic Valley near Hagerman. That’s just gone out to bid; those campsites won’t be done until next year’s camping season. Also in the works is a new 50-space campground at Eagle Island State Park in the Treasure Valley, but it’s several years out.

Freshman state Rep. Doug Okuniewicz, R-Hayden, proposed HB 93 this year, citing his personal pet peeve that he could never get a spot for his camper at popular Farragut State Park, just 30 miles from his home, unless there was a cancellation, because that park is so popular with out-of-staters, including those traveling over from nearby Washington.

Idaho state Parks Director Susan Buxton welcomed the move, and the bill passed both houses and was signed into law March 19, taking effect immediately. However, that was too late to affect this year’s camping season, since all the most popular state park campgrounds already are booked for the summer.

“The changes will keep Idaho competitive with surrounding states, which have similar surcharges for out-of-state guests,” Buxton said in a news release. “Even with these increases, our parks are a good value given the exceptional recreational opportunities.”

At popular Ponderosa State Park, on the shores of Payette Lake in McCall, a basic campsite costs $24 per night and one with full hookups costs $32. Next year, out-of-staters will pay double; if fees remain the same next year, they’d pay $48 and $64 for the same sites.

Those same fee increases will apply at four other busy state park campgrounds: Farragut, Priest Lake and Round Lake in North Idaho; and Henry’s Lake in eastern Idaho.

HB 93 also required Idaho’s state parks to double daily park entry fees for out-of-staters at five busy state parks. The state parks department chose Bear Lake State Park in southeastern Idaho; Hells Gate State Park in north-central Idaho; and Farragut, Priest Lake and Round Lake state parks in North Idaho. Daily entry fees there for residents are $7; as of this week, out-of-staters will pay $14.

Idaho’s state parks saw huge, record use last year, despite opening for camping two months late due to the coronavirus pandemic; visitation exceeded the previous year’s mark by 1.2 million. North Idaho’s parks were especially popular with Washington residents when that state’s parks were closed during the pandemic, but Idaho’s were open.

Under terms of the federal Land & Water Conservation Fund grants that paid to acquire and develop most of Idaho’s state parks, the state can’t restrict out-of-state use or have an “Idahoans-first system,” Quintana said. But it can charge up to double in fees for non-Idaho residents.

“We think we’re still a pretty good value when you look at the destinations you get to come to,” Quintana said. “So we’re unsure whether this will have the effect that some of the lawmakers were looking for, and only time will tell.”

Idaho residents also can buy a $10 Idaho State Parks “Passport” that covers daily entry fees, but not camping fees, at all Idaho state parks for a year. The passports are vehicle stickers sold through the Department of Motor Vehicles when Idahoans renew their vehicle registrations.

There’s more information on Idaho’s state parks at the state parks website: parksandrecreation.idaho.gov.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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