OLYMPIA – As state park officials wrestle with a budget cut of up to $23 million over the next two years, they’re considering temporarily closing – or permanently getting rid of – dozens of state parks.
On the list: Mount Spokane State Park.
The state Parks and Recreation Commission will meet today in Olympia to try to figure out what criteria to use. But under one scenario – simply prioritizing by number of visitors – Mount Spokane could rank low enough to be temporarily closed. The agency estimates that would save more than $400,000 a year.
It would be absurd to close such a large and important park, said Cris Currie, president of Friends of Mount Spokane State Park. He heard about the list at a park meeting Tuesday night.
“It’s not something that’s going to happen,” Currie said. “The parks commission has to get the public’s attention and the Legislature’s attention.”
A spokeswoman for the state parks commission stressed that no decision had been made, and probably wouldn’t be until lawmakers pass a budget this spring. Hearings would be held in March and April.
As an example of one way to prioritize parks, commissioners have been given a list of more than 30 parks, ranked by visitation, where closure would save the state at least $150,000 a year.
“This is just data,” spokeswoman Virginia Painter said. “We’ll have to see if it’s even possible to mothball these.”
The list ranges from Puget Sound’s Jarrell Cove, with about 36,000 visitors a year, to Saint Edward State Park, with 715,000. Mount Spokane is one of the most-visited parks on the list, with about 485,000 visitors a year. It’s the only Spokane-area park on the list.
In December, Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed a 10 percent budget cut to Parks and Recreation. That means shaving about $10 million over the next two years. The agency drew up plans to cut staff, postpone equipment purchases and to try to get rid of 13 state parks.
Those parks, ideally, would be given to local cities or counties to take care of. Two other parks would be closed. None are in the Spokane region.
With the state’s budget picture worsening, lawmakers have now asked Parks and Recreation how it would deal with a 23 percent budget cut.
Instead of getting rid of more parks, the agency is suggesting mothballing them. Restrooms and gates would be locked. Services and routine maintenance would be halted. The public could still walk into the parks and use them during the day.
“We won’t cite people for being on the land,” said Painter.
To save the requested $23 million, the agency says, it would have to temporarily close 20 to 36 parks, in addition to the 15 already slated for transfer or closure. A final version of that list will likely be given to state lawmakers next week, once the commission figures out how to prioritize the parks.
All those closures would be temporary, Painter said.
“But how temporary?” she continued.
“No one knows.”
At public hearings so far, reaction has been overwhelming against the first round of proposed transfers and closures.
“It’s going to be a tough one,” Painter said of the decision. “The really hard part is that nobody wants to do any of this. We know the public is connected to special places.”
The state has 121 parks, including islands, trails, beaches and campgrounds.