Washington State Parks rangers and managers of other state lands are gearing up for the debut of the Discover Pass, which will be required for motor vehicle access to most state lands starting in July.
State officials aren’t expecting a jubilant reception for the new permit created by the Washington Legislature.
The pass will be required for many mushroomers, berry pickers, firewood cutters, geocachers and others not familiar with paying to recreate on state lands.
Online responses to state agency websites have been largely negative.
“We’ll be making a special effort to explain the pass,” said Chris Guidotti, Riverside State Park manager in Spokane. “Without it we’d be closing parks.”
With some exceptions, the $30 annual pass ($10 daily) will be required on all street-legal vehicles, including motorcycles, in state parks as well as on lands managed by the departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife.
Staff from the three agencies have been meeting since April to work out details of the program.
The law was signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire on May 12 to help plow through the state budget crisis without closing parks or other state-land facilities, such as fishing access sites and DNR campgrounds.
The law takes effect Friday, but state officials say they won’t begin enforcing the pass requirement until July 5, after the Independence Day holiday.
The passes can be purchased online or wherever Washington hunting and fishing licenses are sold. Spokane County alone has 42 hunting and fishing license dealers ranging from sporting goods shops to Wal-Mart.
“Within a week or so the passes should be printed and available for us to sell at the park,” Guidotti said, noting that the Nine Mile headquarters is open weekdays and the entrance station at the Bowl and Pitcher site should be open for sales most days during summer.
Mount Spokane State Park rangers will be selling the passes, but they don’t have staff to guarantee someone will be in the park entrance office. Two rangers on duty could be anywhere in the 14,000-acre park, said Steve Christensen, park manager.
“State parks staffs are spread very thin and we’re not able to promise that on a given day somebody will be available to sell passes at the parks,” said Virginia Painter, Washington State Parks spokeswoman in Olympia.
The surest bet is to buy the pass before heading to a state park or other state land, she said.
The fine for not having a pass is $99, although state officials say they will opt to educate rather than ticket offenders in the beginning.
Sportsmen will continue to get a Washington Fish and Wildlife Department Vehicle Access Pass when they purchase a Washington hunting or fishing license. This access pass allows them to park a vehicle at WDFW boat launches and land access sites, but a Discover Pass will be required for parking in state parks and on DNR land.
Boaters who do not hunt or fish will have to buy the Discover Pass to use Fish and Wildlife launches, such as the popular public access at Liberty Lake. The Fish and Wildlife agency’s $14 Vehicle Use Pass formerly sold to non-sportsmen is no longer available.
Campers who book sites at state parks will not need a Discover Pass during their paid days at the campground.
(More exemptions and caveats are listed in sidebars to this story.)
State parks in the Spokane area had to make special considerations in enforcing the Discover Pass requirement. For example:
Riverside State Park: The pass will be required at all access sites and facilities within the 10,000-acre Riverside State Park downstream from the T.J. Meenach Bridge. That includes street-legal vehicles at the ORV area, the Plese Flats river access and Little Spokane River access sites.
Centennial Trail: The Discover Pass will not be required for parking at Centennial Trail parking areas and other Riverside State Park properties in Spokane Valley.
However, the pass will be required for parking at Centennial Trail facilities and areas downstream from the T.J. Meenach Bridge, including the Fort George Wright Cemetery access and the Bowl and Pitcher Overlook access on the south side of the river.
Columbia Plateau Trail: The pass will be required for parking at trailheads, including the trailheads at Cheney and Fish Lake.
“We will not be able to have pay stations at these sites,” Guidotti said. “Visitors will need the Discover Pass in advance, or buy them at our Nine Mile office or at the Bowl and Pitcher during business hours.”
Mount Spokane: The pass will be required for the vehicles of summer visitors and some winter visitors.
The pass will not be required for winter visitors at the alpine ski area parking lots when the lifts are in operation.
From Nov. 1-March 31, the pass will not be required on vehicles sporting the Washington Sno-Park Permit, which will continue to be required at plowed recreation parking areas across the state.
“We still have to deal with signage,” Christensen said. “We don’t want too many signs; it turns people off.”
Demand for the Discover Pass is light so far at stores that sell hunting and fishing licenses. Big 5 stores contacted this week said only a handful of people have requested Discover Passes from their state fishing and hunting license system.
State parks offices will be the cheapest place to purchase the pass because they will not charge a $2 dealer fee, Painter said. But the passes may not be printed and available at park offices until July.
Online pass sales are tagged with both a dealer fee and a 10 percent transaction fee, bringing the cost of the annual Discover Pass to $35.
Some state lawmakers who approved the Discover Pass say they didn’t realize dealer and transaction fees would be charged by the retailers and the private company that runs the online system. State Sen. Kevin Ranker, who sponsored the legislation, says it was his understanding that any transaction costs would be built into the $30, not passed along to parks users.
State officials say the fees are written into vendor agreements.
Money collected from pass sales will be distributed to the three agencies, with state parks getting 84 percent and DNR and Fish and Wildlife getting 8 percent each.
Washington State Parks officials say they will continue to depend on money generated by the donations made on vehicle license renewal forms. State parks also generate income from camping and boat launching fees.
The Discover Pass program has many critics who point out that the previous program to collect parking fees at state parks in 2003-2005 reduced visitation and failed to raise the anticipated income.
“It’s just wrong on every level and will not raise the needed revenue to keep parks open and operating,” said Nora Porter of Port Townsend, who’s been associated with state park funding since the late ’90s as a member of the Fort Worden State Park friends group and advisory committee.
The agency staffs have had to work within the private sector requirements as well as within the framework of the legislation. For instance, the law prohibits the pass from being transferrable to a second vehicle.
“Rather than just giving somebody a ticket, park rangers will be able to sell the passes when they contact people who don’t have them,” said Christensen at Mount Spokane. “That will help, since we know some people will be upset.”
Outside the state parks, enforcement will be born largely by Fish and Wildlife officers.
DNR has eight enforcement officers statewide, said Bryan Flint, agency spokesman in Olympia.
WDFW has 136 commissioned Fish and Wildlife Police officers statewide.
A high percentage of sportsmen use DNR lands and will need the Discover Pass in addition to the Vehicle Access Pass they get with their hunting and fishing licenses.
“If you hunt around Yakima, it’s highly likely you’re hunting part of the time on DNR land,” said Jeff Tayer, WDFW’s regional director. “Let me put it this way: I’m getting the Discover Pass. Better safe than sorry.”
“Some folks have been supportive; others think it’s a government takeaway,” Guidotti said.
“In essence, in this budget climate, people will be voting with their pocketbooks on whether they want parks to stay open. It’s a nationwide trend.”