The folks at Washington State Parks are so over the “fiscal cliff.”
The department was told two years ago not to expect any general fund support in the 2013-2015 fiscal biennium. To supplement, then replace, state parks funding, the Legislature authorized a Discover Pass that park enthusiasts would have to purchase in order to use any of Washington’s 116 state parks. The cost: $10 per day, or $30 per year.
The goal was praiseworthy, and illusory: Make park users pay the full cost of maintaining the parks and paying the rangers and other workers who manage them. No state park system, nor the National Parks, lives entirely off the land.
It was apparent within months that the pass was a failure. Revenues were almost 50 percent below projections, in part because park users refused to buy multiple passes for all the vehicles they owned. To eliminate that disincentive, the Legislature this year authorized the use of a single pass on multiple vehicles. That wasn’t much of a stimulus.
Sales continue to lag. To help turn the numbers around, the department is promoting a pass that becomes effective on whatever date the purchaser chooses. Put one under the Christmas tree, set the effective date for that first hike in May.
That’s a good idea. Think of it as a 60-inch flat screen television without the screen. You are the remote.
But the picture for State Parks, which marks its centennial next year, is unlikely to improve significantly even with a Christmas rush. Despite staff reductions throughout the system – from 15 to nine full-time positions at Riverside and Mount Spokane – the department will limp through the rest of the biennium, then …
The department is looking for a safety net. Depending on the staff time legislators want to buy back, how much delayed maintenance and forest restoration gets done, and other factors, its budget request ranges from $12 million on the low end to $27 million at the top.
The department received $21 million this biennium.
There had been hope sponsorships would provide some help, but a spokeswoman says there is no staff to do the recruitment, although there has been some success booking special events that attract new park visitors. Officials are also considering the possibility that developers impinging on wetlands could offset that damage by financing improvements to State Parks-owned aquatic property.
The Washington Trails Association, whose members volunteer many hours to park upkeep, recommends an infinitely transferable pass. A joint state/federal permit that would cover state and federal use fees could also be explored, a spokesman says, in part to resolve confusion over access among users and land managers.
Gov.-elect Jay Inslee said park reliance on user fees is unfortunate, and their elimination is a long-term goal. He’s also said he will not raise taxes despite a potential $1 billion increase in K-12 spending.
Revenues from the Discovery Pass may rebound once users are reconciled to the need, but covering 100 percent of park costs was a pipe dream. Some measure of support from the general fund will be necessary to avoid the locking up of an amenity that has value to all.
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