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Editorial: Washington park system needs more state funding

This year marks the 100th birthday of Washington’s state park system, but severe budget cuts have muted the centennial celebration.

Four years ago, the Legislature thought the parks could go it alone with user fees, but it’s been an unsuccessful sojourn, according to a report from the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission. It was wishful thinking to begin with, precipitated by the recession and the painful budget cuts it wrought. The abrupt nature of the send-off didn’t help.

The state’s 117 parks got $94.5 million from the general fund in the 2007-09 budget. Under the current two-year operating budget, they received a mere $8.3 million, along with $11.7 million shifted from a litter tax levied on manufacturers of items apt to be carelessly tossed away, such as beverage containers and food packaging. The revenue is supposed to be used on litter-control programs.

That’s a $74.5 million budget cut that was supposed to be made up, in part, by the $30 seasonal Discover Pass, or $10 daily permit for vehicles. The Discover Pass program was projected to bring in $67 million between 2011 and 2013. It will be fortunate to raise half that.

The park system is less dependent on the state than it used to be. About 31 percent of the park system’s budget comes from the Discover Pass program. Another 39 percent is derived from charging users of campgrounds, cabins, yurts, concessions and other services. Donations comprise about 18 percent. Making up the rest is the challenge, and reserves have been spent down.

Even before the state rolled back its contribution to the parks, austerity was the watchword. Since 2000, the state has closed 12 parks, reduced the hours at others and turned nearly one-third of its rangers into part-timers. In the past four years, full-time employees have been shaved from 595 to 395, according to the Associated Press.

At this juncture, state lawmakers need to reconsider the goal. Raising fees runs the risk of diminished use. Closing more parks is a sign of failure. No state park system pays for itself, and it’s an unfair expectation. Most state services do not face this burden. For instance, the state is engaged in a grand debate over transportation funding, but roads, bridges, buses and light rail do not finance themselves. Put them on a self-sufficiency diet, and the system would crumble.

However, user fees ought to remain a part of the parks equation. The commission’s report also suggests loosening state restrictions on private sector help. Public-private partnerships elsewhere around the country are helping sustain public places. The “friends of” model has had many successes, including the Centennial Trail in Spokane. The key is retaining public access while inviting business and educational participation.

The cutbacks at state parks have triggered efficiencies and some creative solutions worth keeping, so the experiment wasn’t wasted. However, the limit on self-sufficiency has been reached. The state needs to kick in more money.

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