Visitors speak, State Parks responds with ‘Clean, Green and Be Seen’ campaign

State Parks focuses on things visitors want

“Do we want to be a 5-star resort, or a last resort?”

Veteran Washington State Park Ranger Steve Gilstrom posed this question to his ranger colleagues at their training sessions early in 2016.

Parks staff had hatched an idea the previous fall: each park would plot and implement a plan to improve its visitor experience, and Gilstrom had agreed to launch the initiative.

The timing posed a particular challenge. Parks’ budget had plummeted during the Great Recession, leading to massive lay-offs, reorganization and increased reliance on earned revenue. Though budgets had been partially restored by 2016 and Discover Pass sales were bringing in revenue, the agency was still a long way from its Pre-Recession days.

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The program was more than a catchy slogan, however. Once a park or area designed its plan, State Parks’ Operations Division made resources available to carry it out.

And so, Clean, Green and Be Seen was born.

Paying attention to the details

The initiative aimed efforts at the areas customers said were important to them: park entrances, restrooms and campsites (clean), grounds and landscaping (green) and customer service (be seen). The campaign proposed to improve small things with small budgets, for big results.

State Parks’ Assistant Director of Operations Mike Sternback explained, “It was about enhancing the work park staff was already doing, giving them needed assistance and creating a deliberate, strategic focus.”

Sternback also admitted, “While this focus is simple, it is not easy with staff who are already stretched pretty thin.”

In some cases, park staff had become inured to the odd rusting sign or peeling bulletin board, the broken fence or the rutted parking lot -- and Gilstrom’s pet peeve: the lack of towel and clothing hooks in campground shower stalls. “The details were getting lost in the totality of our workloads,” said Gilstrom. “And the details have always mattered. They are the things that make our parks special places.”

Over nine months, Gilstrom visited 60 parks by invitation. Each park made a plan for improvements, with his help or on their own.

During his visits, Gilstrom also spent time with park users. “People told me they loved our parks,” he said, listing solitude, socializing, active or passive recreation and time with family as common reasons people visit state parks. Many parents were raising their kids to appreciate parks, he said. “Families had been coming for years; they’d get the same camp spot every summer. Some had been coming for three generations.”

Such campers were not looking for a place to stay, he maintained. They were looking for an experience. “As park staff, we need to help them create that experience.”

Doing a lot with a little

Parks received modest allotments from their regional offices, based on the plans they’d submitted, and staff soon realized those funds could work wonders.

Jon Crimmins, the area manager for seven Central Whidbey Island parks, had $6,200, for example, to fund his plan. “We focused on the more visible things,” he said, citing as examples road striping, leveling parking lots, removing paint bubbles and scraping and repainting windows on Admiralty Head Lighthouse. “We bought a lot of paint,” he chuckled.

Crimmins championed the project in his region and with his parks. “There are cobwebs and dust you don’t notice,” he said. “You are constantly looking at the big things, the safety items, historic preservation, structures in need of major repairs. A crooked sign gets less attention, but it means a lot to our visitors.” Since completing the project last summer, Crimmins said he has received thanks and compliments from several park guests.

When Clean, Green and Be Seen came along, Mount Spokane State Park was deep in a project to restore its Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)-built log cabin, an expensive and complex undertaking. The park had also teamed up with an Eagle Scouts troop to repair the Quartz Mountain lookout, one of State Parks’ most unique lodging features.

Steve Christensen, the ranger at Mount Spokane, saw wisdom in tackling small projects, along with the heavy hitters. “It was a good move by Parks,” said Christensen, who has been with the agency 30-plus years. “It gets us back to focusing on the things that make parks look like parks.”

The park’s projects included sandblasting and galvanizing gates, replacing picnic table boards and building a wood shed for the CCC cabin. Though the projects were completed just as the season was closing, Christensen knows next season’s visitors will be pleased. “People notice when improvements are made,” he said.

Parks: ‘Part of the family’

Many visitors think of state parks as part of the family. They list interaction with staff as a distinguishing feature of “their” parks.

Most campers with children want to meet the ranger. They take part in interpretive programs and talk to park aides and maintenance staff. When staff is visible, their stay is enhanced. Hence, the “Be Seen” piece of the campaign.

Crimmins extended staff office hours, taking note of busy times. “That improved things in a big way,” he said.

Lake Easton State Park Ranger Chris Patterson said extended staff hours gave her more time to be in the park, in the campgrounds and public areas, as opposed to staffing the office.

In some cases, staff could not extend hours, but they put out signs with emergency phone numbers and instructions on how to find camp hosts. “Safety is part of ‘be seen,’” said Gilstrom.

Only the beginning

The campaign is only the beginning, said Gilstrom. “It’s the low-hanging fruit.”

The Clean, Green and Be Seen program runs until June 30, 2017, when the current budget cycle closes, and Sternback said much of the work will be done in the winter and spring. State Parks’ 2017-19 budget request includes funds and staffing to keep these kinds of improvement efforts going.

In addition to sprucing up parks for day-use and overnight visitors, the campaign shows that Washington State Parks recognizes and responds to concerns of a highly diverse clientele.

Since state parks offer accommodations ranging from tent and RV sites to cabins and yurts, to historic castles and lighthouse keepers’ homes, Crimmins had a contemplative response to Gilstrom’s original question: “We can tighten things up a bit, but it’s hard to put a number of stars on what we offer.”