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New Mexico State University

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Wildlife Sightseeing Tops 'To Do' List for State Park Visitor

LAS CRUCES - The typical visitor to one of New Mexico's 31 state parks is more likely to peer through binoculars at the waterfowl than to ride the waves waterskiing.

Each vehicle that arrives at Elephant Butte Lake State Park spends an average of $41.98 in the park, according to a New Mexico State University study state park visitors. An additional $113.32 per vehicle is spent on fuel, groceries, dining out, lodging, equipment rental and fees and other expenses at businesses located outside the park. (10/27/2003) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

The first-ever demographic study of state park visitors revealed that the most popular activity is viewing wildlife, even at Elephant Butte Lake State Park where boating was thought to be the biggest draw. Researchers with New Mexico State University's Agricultural Experiment Station surveyed nearly 6,000 state park visitors during summer 2001.

"It is very interesting to find out who your customers really are and what activities they like," said Paula Roybal, administrative deputy director of the state parks.

Park officials knew they needed to get a better handle on their customers for marketing and planning purposes when visitors complained about the parks doing away with an $89 annual camping permit in 1998. A new deal offers a four-month, seasonal camping entrance pass for $99.

With funding from the New Mexico Legislature, agricultural economist Frank Ward and research specialist Leeann DeMouche developed the survey to identify visitor characteristics, needs and preferences.

"The legislature wanted to know what visitors wanted and how satisfied they were," said DeMouche, who visited 23 of the state parks in just four days for the project.

Results showed that the typical visitor is 25 to 40 years old, has an above-average income, comes on the weekends from the Albuquerque area and brings along fishing equipment, a tent, binoculars and a boat. Besides checking out the wildlife, visitors most commonly hike, picnic, relax and fish.

These results weren't quite what Roybal was expecting. She thought her primary customers were senior citizen "snowbirds" from out of state.

"This could change how we market our parks," she said. In general, visitors were happy with their park experiences. "But they weren't satisfied with three parks - Conchas Lake, Elephant Butte Lake and Ute Lake, which are very congested," Ward said.

At Elephant Butte, for example, visitors want additional staff for crowd control, especially on holidays. They also say the park needs improved boating management, along with more attention to the dump station, vehicle camp access, developed and primitive campgrounds, boat parking area, restrooms and campground parking.

Once the researchers had a profile of the state parks' customers, they built a visitor predictor model that took into account such factors as elevation, lake water level and park amenities. The model showed that park visitation increases with increased water surface area and more park employees, volunteers and electrical hookups. Having visitor centers, picnic areas and showers also increases use.

"Managers can even use the model to figure out if it is worth it to add more volunteers at a certain park," DeMouche said.

This year, the researchers continue to survey park visitors. They also will develop a more powerful model that managers can use to maximize the number of people parking it across the state by comparing alternatives for adding more amenities, employees and volunteers.