Courtland Nelson sat comfortably, out from behind his desk, as a visitor would, his fingers touching in tepee fashion, his chin resting at the point.

His 10-year anniversary as director of the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation came and passed in March . . . "And," he said, pausing to reflect, "with no regrets. Oh, there have been hard times. But things are pretty darn good."

With that he pointed out that 10 years ago Antelope Island was closed, Soldier Hollow didn't exist, the Quail Creek dam had just broken, snowmobiling areas were limited, off-highway programs were non-existent and This is the Place was a monument, not an entire village as it is today.

"You know, they talk about the good old days, but, really, the good old days are now. We are in the good old days," he said thoughtfully.

The DPR did, in fact, enter the new year in probably the best shape of its life. The park bankbook showed a $30 million balance, which is to be used for general construction over the next few years. Between funds from boating and off-highway use, land-water conservation funds and donations, collected over the past few years, there's enough money to do most of the needed repairs and complete many of the major building projects, including the new heritage museum in Vernal and the 36-hole golf course near Soldier Hollow in Midway by 2004.

The heritage museum in Vernal, he was quick to point out, "Could be another Cody-type center (referring to the popular Western museum in Cody, Wyo.), only minus the artworks."

One program under investigation, he went on, is to partner with Dinosaur National Monument, "With (the museum) being the historical and educational center, and (the monument) being the field facility. We would direct people there, and they would direct people to us."

It would, he expressed, be of mutual benefit to work together, to the point, in fact, where they would someday share a common entrance fee.

It would help increase awareness and visitors to Utah's heritage parks, which are major objectives of Nelson's this year. It's not that he's worried about business, despite the economy, gasoline prices and a general decline in park visits around the country.

"Regardless of conditions, people are going to want to recreate. During the Depression, movie attendance was at an all-time high. People found money to do the simple things," he said.

"I don't have any worries that the numbers aren't going to be there. If anything, we're gong to be challenged to have more facilities and more opportunities."

He realizes that when people drive into a park today they want more than simply a place to park and pitch a tent. People want to see things and do things.

"So we're going to have to increase our services . . . have more nighttime activities, youth programs and interpretive programs, and hiking and biking trails," he said. "This is going to be one of our biggest challenges for the future. We've got to keep our services as high as we can under some of the financial restrictions we face."

He went on to point out that 10 years ago when he arrived there were not interpretive specialists whose job it was to offer informational talks and campfire sessions. Now there are 15 ranger naturalists with specific instructions to reach out to visitors. Also, there has been a push in recent years to put people with backgrounds in sciences, history and archaeology in positions within the nine state heritage centers.

There will, of course, be more challenges. This summer, water will be one.

"People are not going to want to step off their boats and hike three-quarters of a mile to a picnic area. But water is out of our hands and yet recreation is a big thing on our ponds, so we're trying to do what we can to keep the water as high as we can. One thing we can do is a better job letting the people know the condition of our ponds."

Another challenge centers on park employees. Budget cuts, for example, have resulted in lower pay raises and hiring freezes. All this, he pointed out, during a time when demands on their skills is increasing.

Still, he continued, he's optimistic about the future.

"We've got wonderful facilities, good public support and are coming off some great successes. The staff will have a wonderful future being employees of the state park system," he said.

"New employees are getting wise guidance on how to be successful and develop career plans . . . there is a real sense of optimism out there." With that he pointed out the number of special awards received last year by park employees.

Mary Tullius, deputy director, won the Shoulder-to-Shoulder award given out at the National Park Service's regional conference.

Ted Woolley, director of boating, was awarded the prestigious Bonner Award given by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

Karen Krieger, heritage coordinator, received the Utah Humanities Council's Merit Award.

Then Kathy Donnell, Jordanelle naturalist, received the Volunteer of the Year award; Andrew Goodwin, historic replicator at Edge of the Cedars, won an award from the Chief Justice of Utah; and David Harris, Lake Powell boating manger, received the Award of Merit from the National Water Safety Congress.

Nelson forgetting, of course, to mention that he was given the Distinguished Service Award by the National Association of State Park Directors.

"In truth, if we don't get depressed by short-term financial issues, but look back and see what's happened, it's an unbelievably bright future," he concluded.

Starting, of course, with the good old days that are currently upon us.


E-MAIL: grass@desnews.com