- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - There are spectacular views from the bluffs over the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, waterfalls to photograph and wooden towers to climb.

Some come to look for birds, grazing deer and strutting turkeys while others are forced to strategize against hungry nocturnal raccoons.

A visit to a Wisconsin state park can mean bluegill, bass and muskie at the end of a line and sacks of morel mushrooms, wild raspberries and hickory nuts. A campfire can yield S’mores, yarns and song.

And this year, there will be new additions to the offerings for campers and day-use visitors with more planned and scheduled to open in the next few years. Many of the new and proposed amenities are being fully or partly funded by friends groups and come as Republican lawmakers have proposed cutting tax support for parks and raising user fees beginning in 2016, the Wisconsin State Journal (https://bit.ly/1dAooDV ) reported.

Dan Schuller, director of state parks, said friends groups donate nearly $800,000 a year to support programming at state parks and volunteers work 160,000 hours doing everything from being camp hosts to pulling invasive garlic mustard and buckthorn.

“They strongly support their community park and they help sell that park and make it an integral part of the community,” Schuller said. “We depend a lot on the friends groups but there are other opportunities that the state parks really need to take advantage of.”

Those could include more special events and partnerships with area businesses and other non-profit organizations, Schuller said.

In 2014, properties managed by the state park system drew 14 million visitors and 487,977 campers. Those properties include 49 state parks, eight forests and eight recreation areas.

The state also has seven forests in northern Wisconsin managed by the state Division of Forestry plus the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest managed by the federal government. Those lands cover 1.5 million acres and are home to scores of campsites and trails, many on small lakes and river systems.

However, visitors to the Chequamegon-Nicolet will notice a reduction in services this year due to federal budget cuts and a drop in visitors over the years. Parts of two large campgrounds and 11 smaller campgrounds are closed and trash disposal, toilet facilities, public water supply and other amenities “at a small portion of other developed recreation sites will be absent or occur less frequently,” according to the U.S. Forest Service.

“The Forest has continued to maintain service at normal levels despite financial challenges during the last several years, but this practice is no longer sustainable,” a statement on the Forest Services website read.

One of the best examples of what can be accomplished by a friends group is at Blue Mound State Park in western Dane County.

That’s where a $2.1 million swimming pool and splash pad opened Saturday. The state improved the road and parking lot leading to the pool and it is next to a 2,400-square-foot shelter built by the Friends of Blue Mound State Park.

The $600,000 facility opened in 2013 and is at trailheads for cross country skiers and mountain bikers.

The friends also kicked in $100,000 for the pool and splash pad project that replaces a pool built in 1972. Blue Mound remains the only state park in Wisconsin with a swimming pool.

“That whole day use area now has seen a very significant face-lift,” Schuller said. “It should really be an exciting place for park visitors to frequent.”

At Rib Mountain State Park, the friends group there is raising nearly $680,000 for the construction this year of a shelter at the park near Wausau.

In Milwaukee, a $3 million campaign is underway by the Friends of Lakeshore State Park for a visitor center.

The 22-acre park, located on an island near the Summerfest grounds, is the state’s only urban state park.

And near Lake Mills, the Friends of Aztalan State Park have plans for an $800,000 visitor and interpretive center to better tell the story of the ceremonial and residential Native American town established in 1100 AD along the Crawfish River. Construction could begin in 2016.

At Harrington Beach State Park north of Port Washington and along Lake Michigan, a $170,000 accessible cabin for people with disabilities is being built by the friends group, and when it opens later this year, it will be one of just 10 accessible cabins in the state park system.

“The need for these cabins is overwhelming,” the Friends of Harrington Beach State Park said on its website. “Even though each stay per family is currently limited to only four nights per year, the cabins continue to be booked solid during every camping season.”

Other new amenities this year include $1.7 million in bathroom and shower facilities at Devil’s Lake State Park near Baraboo and the addition of a 60-site camp ground at Buckhorn State Park on Castle Rock Lake near Necedah.

But it’s not all just bricks and concrete.

One of the more unique programs being offered at 13 state parks this year is a partnership with the Summit Players, a theater group founded by Marquette University graduates.

The first-of-its-kind program will offer workshops for children and the theater group will perform shortened versions of a Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare in June and July.

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Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, https://www.madison.com/wsj

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