Saturday, September 30, 2023


How bureaucracy changed the character of a state park

I boondock a lot. However, like with most RVers who do, sometimes I prefer or need the amenities of a campground. Over the years, I developed a pattern of avoiding commercial campgrounds as much as possible, gravitating toward those operated by the U.S. Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers, and Bureau of Land Management.

I tend to avoid campgrounds run by the various state park services for several reasons, e.g., poor reservations systems, arbitrary high surcharges for non-residents, no senior- or annual/lifetime pass discounts, poor management, and weird, nonsensical rules.

Over the years, I have consistently maintained an exception to the “no state parks” rule in my native state of Idaho to visit Farragut State Park. I use Farragut as an example here because it is a place I’ve returned to over a lifetime of hiking and camping and know it the best. There are several reasons.

Farragut State Park

First, I grew up on and around the 4,000-acre property that is currently the park. It was land taken over by the U.S. federal government in the early 1940s to establish a vast U.S. Navy training facility. The Navy decommissioned Farragut at the end of WWII; however, when I was a child in the 1950s, all the U.S. Naval Training Base Farragut buildings and facilities were still there.

The vast land parcel was transferred from the federal government to the Idaho State Department of Fish and Game in 1950. There it sat, abandoned, for more than ten years, until the process of dismantling the facility began in the early 1960s. Farragut became an Idaho State Park in 1966. Few people noticed. The park remained a tranquil, underused public property, with nothing there in the mid-1960s except the relics of the military base, the “Brig” base stockade, miles and miles of nicely paved roads, a large water tower, and many concrete parade grounds that look very odd in the middle of the vast open fields. There were no campgrounds. There were the occasional national Boy Scout and Girl Scout summer encampments and a rock concert or two, and that was it.

The park became a political hot potato in the ‘70s. In the late 1980s, there was discussion among majority members of the Idaho state legislature about selling the 4,000 acres of land with its thousands of feet of waterfront property to private developers.

Camping at Farragut State Park

Fast-forward to the 1970s when a few campers began using the park. Most of us who camped there knew the camp management and staff—maybe a dozen staff—and the park was generally a low-key, welcoming place. There were no gates or giant boulders obstructing access to large areas of the park like there are today. The park posted a few commonsense rules about fires and trash and charged a modest fee to use the facilities. You could hike, camp, swim, launch your boat, fish, and generally have a great time.

Then it all began to change. I started noticing the changes in the late 1990s. A lot more staff appeared. Gates were erected across the main roads. Large boulders blocked off other routes. Arguably the nicest area of the park, the Buttonhook campground, was designated as a “group” camp, its access road gated and closed off most of the time. (The Buttonhook Bay camp has recently been re-designated as a “Day Use” area, which is an improvement, but no camping.) Despite the thousands of acres of land accessible by roads built by the Navy Seabees, the park management relegated dispersed camping to one camp with a dozen or so primitive designated camp spots.

And signs. Signs everywhere. There is scarcely an eyeline left in the park without intrusive signs.

You could almost always get a camp spot upon arrival at the park, but then a “reservation system” was established at some point. It was a disaster. It took years for the system to catch up to digital technology and improve. Today, it is better but cumbersome. And then there is the “check-in” process, which has been bureaucratized to a ridiculously Kafkaesque degree.

Arrival… then and now

For many years, arrival at Farragut State Park was a pleasant experience, made so by the Visitor Center staff, who were the same friendly people season after season. A visitor would stop at the Visitor Center, pay a modest fee, and get a receipt to display on the RV or tow vehicle windshield. The check-in time rule remained unchanged over many years: Don’t occupy your campsite until 2:00 p.m. Simple. The rule was leniently enforced, intended only to allow the camp hosts time to tidy the site before each new arrival. Because check-out was at noon and most campers left earlier, the staff always had the sites done early. If you arrived at the park in the morning or midday, you could go to the beach or picnic in a day-use area. No big deal. Until the bureaucrats took over.

Now, check-in time is still 2:00 p.m., but no one can check in—not even one minute earlier. So, instead of campers checking in as they arrive at the main entrance, they must get in line and wait. Because, of course, standing in line is a time-honored bureaucratic tactic, some poruchik decided to implement a rigid, no-exceptions procedure. Park patrons stood in line (I waited for more than an hour) while the bureaucracy stood idle behind the counter a few feet away, like the characters in one of Franz Kafka’s stories, peering at computer screens (perhaps seeking instructions from the branch office in Prague).

Unfathomable bureaucracy

What I saw and experienced was, as the author Jack Matthews wrote in 1992: “…an unfathomable bureaucracy, one that has emerged through a combination of inertia, default, and the institution of political power, perpetuating itself by feeding upon the rights of the people it was ostensibly designed to serve.”

Irksome as it can be to camp there, Farragut State Park is, above all, a wonderful place of beauty and tranquility perched upon the shores of one of the biggest and deepest lakes in the west. It is worth enduring the government bureaucracy that controls it. And, likely, that will never change.


Randall Brink
Randall Brink
Randall Brink is an author hailing from Idaho. He has written many fiction and non-fiction books, including the critically acclaimed Lost Star: The Search for Amelia Earhart. He is the screenwriter for the new Grizzly Adams television series and the feature film Goldfield. Randall Brink has a diverse background not only as a book author, Hollywood screenwriter and script doctor, but also as an airline captain, chief executive, and Alaska bush pilot.


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1 year ago

The best part is making a reservation online and paying for it in January. Then you show up to the park only to find out you ALSO have to pay a vehicle entrance fee of $14 per day or $86 for the 7 days we were there. How did they THINK I was going to get there? It was never mentioned in the reservation system, or we would have paid for it up front too and been much happier about it. It’s the old bait and switch tactic and isn’t right!

1 year ago

As your neighbor in Montana, we used to love Farragut, right up until they doubled the annual pass for out of state, then doubled the camping fee. Let’s be real, $80 a night insane. Now I make sure to bypass Idaho completely, don’t even stop for gas unless I absolutely have to. Figure it’s costing the state a grand every summer. All because some legislator couldn’t get his boat in the water. Hell of a way to treat your neighbor.

1 year ago

I was born and drafted in Washington state…Drafted in 1968.
I am eligible for a Veterans discount, but not in other states.
I didn’t know that I was only a vet from the Washington state army.

1 year ago

Hi all: I, too, love Farragut SP. I, too, dislike (intensely) the 2pm check-in and, moreover, the high fees imposed by the ID legislature. I’m also behind the counter, an hourly seasonal employee for the first time after many seasons as a volunteer. Remember that we who work within the system are hamstrung by it as well. Meanwhile: Visitors will greeted with a smile when they finally get to the counter.

1 year ago

While I also hate it when campgrounds do not open the check in gate until 2:00, what I hate even more is when jerks pull up to my space at 11:00 and sit there, idling idling idling, apparently hoping they can intimidate me into leaving early. (In such cases, I have been known to stay until 11:59 out of spite.) I can see how similar rude behavior might lead to an argument or worse, which of course would then lead to the 2:00 rule to prevent future disturbances.

1 year ago

Those who are unhappy with the systems in place today should actually have to work for those parks and deal with the customers. If we ask ourselves what has changed over time to require these rules — it isn’t the managers of the parks or the employees. It is the users/abusers who have made it difficult for others to enjoy themselves without some kind of forced compliance.

I feel certain that the park employees would much prefer the old days where they could be a friendly face instead of a referee; could lead hikes and provide environmental education vs. being forced to clean up graffiti and garbage left behind. In this dream world the camp hosts would be available to lend a hand instead of scanning license plates because more and more campers think it’s funny to cheat the system.

We could do a little experiment: one month with no rules, no online reservation systems, no stay limits, etc. Let’s go back to the “old days” and see what happens. Likely, it won’t be pretty.

1 year ago
Reply to  pursuits

Thank you!

1 year ago
Reply to  pursuits

Thanks 😃

Dave Walter
1 year ago
Reply to  pursuits

Bravo. Well said. As a neighbor to the Park for almost Eight years now there has been a tremendous amount of traffic into the Farragut Park bring the need for Park Personnel to do more policing and law enforcement. This requires more funding etc… during the COVID lock down with Washington State shutting down their State Park it was hard for local North Idaho Residents to use there own State Park. Therefore I have no problem hiking up out of state fees. I say hike the fees up even more for out of Staters at peak parts of the year so local Idaho Residents have a chance to enjoy their own State Park

Neal Davis
1 year ago

Thanks for the informative warning. I will remember to only patronize COE, BLM, and commercial campgrounds in Idaho.

Rod C
1 year ago

State parks are like state governments. Some try to fleece the people for all they can get and some don’t

1 year ago

I do wish that you had provided some actual examples here: …”eg., poor reservations systems, arbitrary high surcharges for non-residents, no senior- or annual/lifetime pass discounts, poor management, and weird, nonsensical rules.” I am a Camp Host at a beautiful State Park in Northern Iowa. Reasonable rates ($14 non-elec, $20 electric, $26 FHU) Nice bathhouses with hot showers and flush toilets. No silly rules, just “silly” people that leave diapers in fire pits, they don’t pick up after their dogs, and some real degenerates confuse the shower for a toilet!! But most campers are really terrific; a few make me cringe. The reservation system works great, and we have no lines at the entrance as it’s a self-check-in process. Most folks figure it out without any trouble, but I’m here if they need help. Obviously every state is different (praise the 10th Amendment!) so let’s not characterize them all the same. The National Parks are the true victims of bureaucracy!!

D Boo
1 year ago

$48 for a spot to park, no thanks. I’m self-contained don’t use their garbage or their toilets.

Willa R
1 year ago

I live in oregon and have camped in state parks all over the West. I think we have much better campgrounds than I have seen in California, for instance. I am glad oregon is finally charging out of state fees even if it is only a pittance. With computers, I think it would be great if the state could charge out of staters by whatever scale their home state charges oregon residents. That would only be fair.

1 year ago

North Carolina has wonderful state parks.

Steve H
1 year ago

The best state park camping in the nation is in New Mexico. The $14/night W/E sites and $18/night FHU sites include the daily vehicle pass. The cgs also include gravel or paved sites, picnic tables, fire rings, flush toilets, hot showers, and often lake views and boat ramps. And, if that is not enough, residents and non-residents pay exactly the same rates and most parks keep some sites for non-reservation, FC-FS campers. We have camped at state and provincial parks all over the US, including Alaska, and Canada and NM parks are still the best bargain we have found!

Randall Brink
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve H

That’s great to know. Those fees are in line with what Idaho used to be before the huge costs of overhead and the political sentiment for penalizing visitors from other states took hold.

Pat Farmer
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve H

Agree.. New Mexico State Parks are great.. City of Rocks is the most unique, but also loved Pancho Villa and Elephant Butte and Rockhounds and a few others I can’t remember all the names. $14/night for water and power.

Phil Biggs
1 year ago

Our daughter is a park ranger at an Army Corps of Engineers park (5 campgrounds in total). Oh, the stories she can tell. There are so many truly stupid, incredibly rude, and just plain mean people out there. Hence, the “bureaucratic” rules you encounter. And if you think there are just a few, you’d be wrong!

1 year ago
Reply to  Phil Biggs

You may be on to something here.

Unfortunately you cannot legislate decency or respect or responsibility etc. But lately it seems we’ve been doing our best to legislate away all the consequences of lacking these attributes- to the detriment of the remaining who do….

1 year ago

We are former North Idaho residents and camped at Farragut many times. Last summer we were “home” visiting and took a picnic to the park. Upon entering we were told the fee would be $14.00, double because we not Idaho residents. Same for camping. We volunteer host for Oregon State Parks and they charge 25% more for out of state campers but not double. We have camped and hosted at numerous Oregon state parks and I believe overall they are well run with a minimum of hassle to their guests.

Jim Larson
1 year ago

You check in at Farragut to get a spot that you have PREPAID only to find out you also have to pay a Vehicle Entrance fee NOT mentioned when making the reservation. It’s a bait and switch tactic. We fly R/C planes but we can’t CAMP there at the flying field anymore. But if I bring horses I can camp next to the pens? We have been coming here for 30 years and the last 5 have been the worst. They invent ways to frustrate you and take the fun out of being here.

George Buckner
1 year ago

Bureaucracy did not change this park. We (the public) are responsible; our numbers and our behavior.

1 year ago
Reply to  George Buckner

This ^^^!

1 year ago

Not sure what point the author was trying to make, other than he wants things to be like the “good old days.” Well, good luck with that. Regarding State Parks: I have been camping all over the U.S. since 1957 (yes, I started young!) and now volunteering as a campground host and State Parks, generally, are some of the best campgrounds in the country (Washington, Oregon, Montana, Utah, Texas, and yes…Idaho to name a few). The Park staffs and volunteers are all good people whose mission is to help make your camping experience an enjoyable one. And if a few rules and signs are necessary to facilitate that, then so be it. ‘Nuff said.

Joseph Phebus
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt


bill semion
1 year ago

Unfortunately, some of the things pointed out here have become necessary due to campground slobs. Sorry, but signs telling you what to do, and more often, what not to do, prevent people doing stupid things. Much of what is pointed out is, true, unnecessary. But much of what is pointed out is to prevent ignorant people doing stupid things, and then saying, ‘well, no one said i couldn’t do it.’

1 year ago
Reply to  bill semion

Your absolutely right Bill, I use to think COMMON SENSE was common, but now it rare, very rare.

Jim Prideaux
1 year ago

Things he liked were due to helpful staff. Things he didn’t like were due to the bureaucracy (taking orders from Prague?). They are the same folks.

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