Without Fred Hayes, Utah might not have its state parks — at least not in the way they exist today.
In 2012, when he was named state parks director, Hayes faced a shrinking budget and low employee morale. While some thought parks would need to close to make ends meet after losing millions in state funding, Hayes vowed his department would “fight with our dying breath” to keep them open.
When Hayes died Friday at age 58, Utah had one more state park (and at least two more possibly on the way) than when he took over six years ago, and most were operating in the black, said George Sommer, a board member with Friends of Utah State Parks.
“To be honest,” Sommer said, “I think he saved state parks.”
Hayes was found dead Friday in his Heber City home. It’s not clear how he died, but Department of Natural Resources spokesman Nathan Schwebach said Hayes was alone when it happened. His family last heard from him about 1 p.m., when he told his son he was planning to take a nap.
Friends and colleagues (for Hayes, there wasn’t a huge distinction between the two) who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune remembered Hayes for his drive, energy and ability to motivate the people who worked for him.
He was also a visionary who could make anyone feel like they were the most important person in the room, said Irene Hansen, who does travel and tourism work for Duchesne County Chamber of Commerce.
“Everybody loves Fred, and the interesting thing is, I think most everybody would think that they were Fred’s favorite person,” she said.
Although Hayes is from Duchesne, Hansen said she didn’t meet him until she joined the state parks board in 2004. At the time, Hayes was in charge of the off-highway vehicle division.
When Hayes interviewed for parks director, Hansen said she and others on the board were blown away.
During his career in the parks department — he started in 1982 as a seasonal ranger aide at Starvation State Park in his hometown — Hayes had apparently stockpiled a wealth of ideas for how to improve parks. During his interview, he shared that vision.
“It literally rocked all of us,” Hansen said. “We were like, ‘Holy cow. How can this guy be holding all this in?’”
After he accepted the job, Hayes enacted a plan to run state parks like businesses. He challenged park managers to come up with ideas to make their parks destinations to attract visitors and encouraged adding amenities like zip lines, yurts and archery courses.
The idea worked. Visitation to the state’s parks grew from 4.8 million people in 2011, the year before Hayes became director, to 5.7 million last year, The Salt Lake Tribune reported in early February, when the state announced Echo State Park as its newest in more than a decade.
Lawmakers this session have been exploring options to designate historic Hole in the Rock trail and parts of the Little Sahara Sand Dunes as state parks.
Hayes’ 10-year goal was to open a state park in all 29 Utah counties.
Yet, through it all, Hayes remained humble, said Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George. The two worked closely to fix accessibility issues in Washington County’s Snow Canyon State Park, like repaving the highway that runs through it.
“He never took an ounce of credit for anything that was done, but under his phenomenal leadership, the parks system just worked better,” Ipson said.
Hayes’s death came as a surprise to many, said Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of National Resources.
Although Hayes was a “big man,” he’d recently had surgery to help him lose weight. He was down about 70 pounds and was telling people he felt better than he had in about 20 years, Styler said.
Styler said when he learned Hayes died, he was shocked.
“It took my breath away,” he said.
One thought running through Hansen’s mind Saturday was how Hayes had been looking forward to a retirement so he could spend more time enjoying the parks he helped sustain. Although he lived a happy life, Hansen said, he didn’t get that chance.
“You know, he helped everybody else have all these good vacations. I think he was looking forward to being able to do some of those things himself,” she said.
Hayes is survived by his wife, Serena, and their five kids. Funeral services haven’t yet been announced.