Wisconsin’s new parks chief hopes to oversee tech upgrades

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MADISON – There is a new leader at the helm of Wisconsin State Parks.

Steven Schmelzer took office as the department’s new director of parks on July 19, at a time when parks in Wisconsin are seeing high attendance: 9.6 million visits so far this year, an 18% increase from to 2020 and an increase of 36% compared to 2019.

Schmelzer will serve as a leader and strategist in the development, direction and promotion of statewide parks and outdoor recreation for Wisconsin’s 49 state parks, more than 500 boat ramps water, 15 state forests, 44 state cycle paths and over 5,000 campsites.

One of his first steps? Looking at how it can enhance the experience at Wisconsin State Parks for the millions of visitors who hike, camp, fish, hunt, or otherwise enjoy the properties.

One of the big updates he hopes to implement is to provide GPS mapping on all properties in the state, so visitors can view a map and know where they are, instead of guessing a printed card.

“Technology is an important thing that we have to keep embracing,” he said.

Another project he hopes to tackle is extending WiFi in properties, to go beyond the concession stands that currently offer it. Schmelzer acknowledged that some people seek out parks to escape cellphones and the internet, but it’s important to offer the service to anyone who might need it.

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“We’re currently a stand-alone system, so all the money we get is from camping and sticker sales, so there are some limits,” he said. “We will have to assess what we can do, but continuing to seek out different technologies to provide higher levels of service will be of critical importance.”

While these dreams may take some time to come to fruition, Schmelzer plans to listen carefully to the needs and wants of visitors. He noted that the system had received overwhelmingly positive feedback after changing the booking of campsites online during the pandemic last year.

Schmelzer started with the DNR in 1992, as a ranger at one of Wisconsin’s most popular outdoor sites – Devil’s Lake State Park, according to the DNR. In 1999 he was promoted to Deputy Park Superintendent, eventually becoming Park Superintendent from 2008-2020. After leaving Devil’s Lake, Schmelzer was chosen to lead the Southwest District, spanning eight counties and 18 different state properties.

During his tenure as park superintendent, Schmelzer also worked on the transformation of the former Badger Army Ammunition Factory into the Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area. Along with the Ho-Chunk Nation, the U.S. military, the USADA Dairy Forages Research Center, and other groups, collaborative management of the property has been established, and the region now offers a wide range of various recreational activities.

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Schmelzer graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Recreational Resource Management and also served 14 years in the US Air Force and the Wisconsin Air National Guard.

He got his love for state parks from his parents, he said, who took him to parks from an early age. It is a tradition that he now carries on with his own family.

“My kids grew up in state parks,” Schmelzer said. “This is what we do on vacation.”

Schmelzer aims to ensure that families continue to have the opportunity to enjoy Wisconsin state lands, whether it’s during a month-long camping trip or a short vacation weekend.

“I want to offer the experience that I had growing up,” he said.

Laura Schulte can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.


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