Some veterans who have suffered disabilities during their service to the country may be able to enter Idaho's state parks for free next year, despite fee increases for other park patrons and cuts for the Idaho Department of Park and Recreation.
The department announced Monday that it is taking applications for a pilot program granting free admission to veterans "whose service-related disability is rated at fifty (50) to ninety (90) percent permanent and total disability." The program will be limited to 300 vets who will be chosen at random through a lottery-style drawing. The department requires veterans to apply before April 27, 2010. The drawing will be held in October and those selected through the lottery will be notified by a postcard from the department. Selected vets will receive the free admission to any state park in the state of Idaho from Jan. 1, 2011, until Dec. 31, 2011.
According to Jennifer Wernex, spokesperson for the department, the program is in its final year of a three-year testing phase. During the 2008 legislative session, lawmakers asked the department to establish the testing phase as a pilot program to assess the impact of free admission for veterans on the state. Wernex said that the pilot project will allow the state to determine if it can proceed with giving free admission to parks to all vets, which was the original intent behind the pilot project.
Parks and Rec, facing a 20 percent reduction in funding from the state, couldn't have cut the program to save money, said Wernex. Because the program was initiated and mandated by the Legislature, the department would have been in violation of statute had it tried to cut the program before the end of the trial period.
So how much has the program cost the state? Wernex is not quite sure yet. She said that she "is still in the process of analyzing the impact" of the pilot project on the department, but said that she will have the numbers ready when the department is required to report back to the Legislature in 2012.
If lawmakers decide to end the program, the department, like it always has in the past, will continue to offer free admission to state parks for vets who are at a 100 percent disability level. Though not able to offer a final evaluation of the project, Wernex said that veterans have shown increasing amount of interest in the free admission and that the program has grown in popularity since its inception.
"They really have enjoyed having this opportunity available to them," said Wernex.