The state parks have long been tasked with promoting recreational offerings, preserving significant historical sites and showcasing the diverse natural beauty of North Dakota. The coming year marks the 50th anniversary of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department and, to commemorate this milestone, celebrations and events will be held at parks throughout the state.
“The focus of our anniversary is the past, present and future of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department,” says Karen Assel, co-chair of the 50th Anniversary Committee and the department’s assistant field manager. “Our goal is to tell the department’s past story, celebrate and commemorate the present and leave a legacy for the future.”
Developing the State Parks
President Theodore Roosevelt laid the foundation for the state parks when he signed over the deed to Old Fort Abraham Lincoln to the State of North Dakota in 1907. State parks were then managed by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. The park system continued to grow and, in 1965, the Legislature established the North Dakota Park Service, along with the State Outdoor Recreation Agency to assist the Park Service with planning park improvements. In 1977, the agencies were merged and renamed the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, which now manages 13 parks and recreation areas.
Mark Zimmerman, director of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, says the 50th anniversary is truly a milestone for the parks. “These are the special places for the people of North Dakota,” he notes. “We want to celebrate what we’ve done in the past 50 years.”
Celebrating 50 Years
Fourteen celebrations are planned in 2015, with a kick-off event scheduled for May 1 at the North Dakota Heritage Center on the State Capitol grounds and celebrations at the state parks through the year. “Celebration events include a short program, local music, free picnic dinner with signature 50th anniversary ice cream treats, exhibit trailer tours, children’s activities and special anniversary memorabilia and merchandise sales,” says Assel.
Henry Duray, 50th Anniversary Committee co-chair and park manager of Grahams Island State Park, says many other happenings are taking place to honor the state parks. A commemorative anniversary logo was created, and a history and timeline of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department was written. “We are also making a concerted effort to document the past 50 years by organizing the department’s photo archives,” says Assel. “More than 16,000 photos are in the process of being scanned, labeled and categorized for historic record.”
A PowerPoint presentation to be used at celebration events has been developed, which illustrates the department’s historical overview and activities planned for the 50th anniversary, as well as addressing the future direction of the department.
“The Donate-A-Tree program has also been established across the park system for commemorative tree and shrub planting,” says Duray. “The public can lend a hand and share in this extraordinary milestone through the donation of trees and shrubs. Plans are to plant 50 trees and shrubs in each state park to commemorate the 50th anniversary.”
A 50th anniversary photo challenge is also being coordinated for state park visitors in which participants must visit at least four participating state parks between April 29 and September 7, 2015, and duplicate images provided for each park. The first 50 entrants to complete the challenge win a 2016 state parks pass. A coloring book, which highlights each of the 13 parks and several key department programs, will also be available at anniversary events.
“A merchandising program is underway to sell quality commemorative souvenirs at the state parks and our headquarters in Bismarck,” says Assel, adding items include a mug, t-shirt, sweatshirt, cookbook, a stuffed Roscoe Racoon, the department’s mascot, and the 2015 North Dakota Horizons calendar (see page 21 for profiles of the contributing photographers and their park photos). “The department is currently accepting recipes from the public for the cookbook,” she notes.
Both Duray and Assel say the special events and social media planned by the Anniversary Committee are an opportunity to reminisce, explore and enjoy outdoor recreation, and celebrate 50 years of public investment in the state parks.
The state’s residents and visitors have made the park system what it is today, says Gordon Weixel, public information officer with the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department. “It’s as much their celebration as the parks’,” he says.
Zimmerman says the diversity of the parks helps them remain popular with residents and visitors alike. “We’ve got great diversity in terrain, programming, size and offerings,” he says. “We try to offer different opportunities to different people.”
He notes people visit parks including Lake Metigoshe State Park, Grahams Island State Park and Lake Sakakawea State Park primarily for the water activities; Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park and Fort Ransom State Park for their rich history; and Sully Creek State Park and Little Missouri State Park for the stunning landscapes, scenery and horseback riding opportunities.
Looking to the Future
The future does present challenges for the state parks, says Zimmerman, and this includes infrastructure, like expanding campsites or creating a new state park, and staffing needs, as long-time employees reach retirement. In addition, he notes, visitors’ expectations of the state parks are changing. “There has been an evolution in camping from tents to fifth-wheel campers and now cabins,” he says. “The challenge is keeping up with what people want.”
“As the state continues to grow, so will the use of the parks,” adds Weixel. “This will put a greater demand on park resources to provide what customers demand. Parks and recreation opportunities will have to grow along with the state.”
The state parks continue to be successful because of residents’ and visitors’ appreciation of the state’s heritage and the outdoors, says Zimmerman. “North Dakotans value their parks. They are a local and affordable way to get outdoors,” he notes. “The state parks are a tradition for people. Someone had the foresight to see these are special places, and people can come out and enjoy their heritage.”
Additional information on North Dakota state parks and 50th anniversary events is available by contacting the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department at 701-328-5357 or visiting www.parkrec.nd.gov.