Iowa’s state parks drew brisker business last year, and newly restored lakes proved to be a strong draw, according to newly released data.
The number of camper days rose to 714,592 in 2009, up 5.3% from flood-plagued 2008. Last year’s attendance was 7.4% higher than the level five years earlier, according to the Des Moines Register.
A camper day means one person staying one night. So a family of four staying one night counts as four camper days.
Including campground visits and other activities, 56 major state parks together drew an estimated 14 million visits last year, up 250,000 from 2008 and the highest total since 2006.
The success comes at a time when state park managers are debating closing lesser-used park areas because of state budget cuts. Further cuts could lead to closure of whole parks, Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Richard Leopold has said.
Lake restorations translate into better fishing and boating, which boosts attendance, said Mike McGhee, who coordinated that work for the resources department. The state is working on 26 lakes, and it has six more restorations planned if money is available.
The poor economy also probably persuaded some people to vacation closer to home, DNR spokesman Mick Klemesrud said.
“When we have dips in the economy, when unemployment is up, people tend to stick around,” Klemesrud said. “People can easily borrow equipment to camp, if they don’t have any. Or, if they buy things, they are available locally, and are inexpensive.”
Jim and Gladys Thomas of Atlantic have camped at Lake Anita every year for the past decade. The state restored the lake, which now draws visitors from much of the continental United States, Alaska and Canada, said Gladys, who with her husband served as campground host from April through October 2009.
“The fishing has been very good,” she said. “They have a lot of fishermen, and the campgrounds are full many weekends and holidays.” She especially likes the lake view from the campground.
The resources department has increased fish stocking at the lakes, so fishing usually improves two years after a major lake restoration, instead of three years after. The lake restorations often include limited dredging and work to stabilize shorelines or reduce soil runoff, or all of the above.
“Better water quality means better fishing, and we do see more park use,” McGhee said. “We are already seeing that at Anita and Three Fires,” which are hot ice-fishing spots.
Clear Lake, Wapello (in Davis County), Green Valley (Union County) and Darling (Washington County) also should see jumps in attendance over the next few years because of improvements, he said.
Part of Clear Lake has been dredged, and a planned overhaul of Ventura Marsh next to the lake will help, too. Tests last fall showed a 72% increase in water clarity in the “Little Lake” area that was dredged, McGhee said. At dredged Crystal Lake, visibility jumped 200%, and phosphorus, which promotes algae growth, declined significantly.