Outdoor enthusiasts face grim budget news
Sportsmen, hikers and other outdoor groups are getting the drift that there’s not much happiness to go around at the Washington Legislature this session, and even less money.
The upshot of all those Tim Eyman-style tax initiatives voters have approved in recent years is that they end up costing us so much money.
Hunting and fishing license fees are almost sure to go up to keep hatcheries, public access sites and wildlife management afloat.
Hikers and birdwatchers are going to be fed upon to keep state parks and Department of Natural Resources recreation areas open to public use.
User fees seem logical at face value: If you visit state parks you should pay for them, not the people who don’t visit state parks.
But parks benefit nearly all people and businesses in the state. It’s not logical for park visitors to pay all the costs since parks are good for the restaurant down the road and the store that sells tents and the business trying to recruit good talent to the state.
But tax initiatives are history and lawmakers are left to make ends meet in a grim budget year.
State lands permit: The Washington Trails Association timed a rally in Olympia Wednesday to focus on SB 5622 and HB 1796, which would create a vehicle pass required for using state parks, state wildlife areas administered by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and state forests administered by the Department of Natural Resources.
The bill would create a $30 annual Discover Pass or the option for a $10 daily pass.
“We talked to elected officials and found a lot of support for keeping public lands open and imposing a reasonable and sensible user fee,” said Jonathan Guzzo, WTA advocacy director.
Little opposition to the proposal has surfaced at hearings, although the former House majority leader has testified against the trend toward fees and fines.
Raising the new opt-out parks donation (paid when people renew their vehicle licenses) from $5 to $15 likely would attract enough sympathetic donors to keep the parks afloat, said Lynn Kessler of Hoquiam, who did not seek re-election in November.
But introduced bills call for the vehicle permits with predictions they would raise enough to keep parks and facilities open.
“There’s no guarantee when dealing with user fees,” Guzzo noted. “The bottom line is that it’s this or nothing. There are no other options for funding these places.”
Only six parks generate enough revenue to cover their costs: Grayland Beach, Bridgeport, Ike Kinswa, Kanaskat-Palmer, Pearrygin Lake and Steamboat Rock.
By some estimates, more than 100 state parks could be closed as early as this fall if the Legislature fails to find a new source of funding.
“We are in new territory,” state parks director Don Hoch testified at a Feb. 2 hearing in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Marine Waters. “We believe (SB 5622) is our best chance at keeping the gates open at state parks.”
Phil Anderson, state Fish and Wildlife director, spoke up for sportsmen at the hearing, noting that they already pay a fee for using state wildlife lands and the 700 public land access sites the agency manages.
“We’re concerned about putting our fishers and hunters in kind of a double jeopardy here,” he told the committee.
Natural resources merger: Legislation to create a new state Department of Conservation and Recreation will get its first hearing today.
Senate Bill 5669 and HB 1850 would attempt to avoid duplication and save money by merging the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission and Recreation Conservation Office into a single agency.
The measure makes the director of the new agency answerable to the governor.
Currently, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission oversees the state wildlife director and the Parks and Recreation Commission hires and fires the state parks director.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission would become advisory. It’s not clear how much that would save. The commission as it stands operates on an annual budget of about $250,000.
Voters spurned efforts to take fish and wildlife policy decisions away from the citizen commission in 1995 by approving Referendum 45.
A hearing on SB 5669 is scheduled today, 1:30 p.m. before the Senate Natural Resources and Marine Waters Committee. Like many hearings, it can be viewed live through a web broadcast at www.tvw.org/
Fish and Wildlife Department staff will be at the hearing largely to answer questions, said Ann Larson, the agency’s legislative liaison.
“The hearing is likely to be devoted mostly to hearing the public’s input and concerns,” she said. “This is just a first step.”
But she said WDFW has been involved in the movement toward natural resources reform for years.
“This is a very big piece of legislation,” she said of the 376-page bill. “It’s a work in progress, but we have not been left out.”
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