State parks a good public investment for Washington
As a member of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, I recently helped celebrate the opening of the new triple-chair ski lift and seven new alpine ski runs at Mt. Spokane State Park.
State Parks is grateful for our unique partnership with Mount Spokane 2000 (MS2000), a local non-profit that preserves alpine skiing on the mountain. MS2000’s vision and perseverance helped make this exciting project a success. Commissioners dedicated weeks, months and years to understand the scope and breadth of the expansion and worked with MS2000 and the public to identify a skiing footprint that balances recreation and environmental protection.
This year, I have the honor of serving as chair of the Commission. As one of seven park commissioners, it is my role to represent all Washingtonians. As a commissioner who lives in Spokane, I am keenly aware of the passion that Spokane and Eastern Washington neighbors, friends’ groups and volunteers have for area state parks.
With state park visits at 36.7 million and growing statewide, increasing demand is a clear theme in our 2019-21 budget requests. We are asking for a larger portion of state tax support to supplement fee revenues to meet demand.
We’ve worked hard to improve the Discover Pass, which has helped to fuel the rebuilding of the agency since the Great Recession. Revenues from the pass now make up 28 percent of Parks’ earned revenue. Earned revenue now makes up 80 percent of general operations, with only 20 percent coming from public tax support – a complete reversal in financing from 10 years ago.
However, as recovery continues and demand on parks continues to grow, fees alone are not sufficient to run the park system. Staffing remains at 2008 levels (540 year-round staff and 500 seasonal). Costs of doing business are going up. Our rapid population growth is putting additional pressure on staff and services and wear and tear on aging facilities.
Visitors now pay for basic access to state parks, and we need to meet their expectations; in surveys, our visitors tell us they love parks but see room for improvement. They consistently say they want clean and well-maintained parks and trails, well-functioning facilities and more direct contact with rangers and other park staff. State Parks’ operating budget proposal would add more frontline staff in parks to provide maintenance and hospitality.
The request is a great investment for Washingtonians. State park visits generate $128 million in state taxes every biennium, and the Commission is requesting $55 from the state general fund to help fund operations.
Meeting visitor expectations is also key in our capital budget request. In addition to stunning natural landscapes, state parks are home to 2,800 buildings, 770 historic structures, hundreds of water, electrical and sewer systems, roads, long-distance trails and marine facilities. State Parks’ request for $91M in new capital funding makes a down payment on addressing more than $460M in building deficiencies and deferred maintenance and sets the pace for us to improve the condition of facilities to an acceptable level in ten years.
Locally, the request includes more road improvements at Mount Spokane and Riverside, campground expansion at Lake Spokane and additional improvements to the Centennial Trail, Columbia Plateau Trail, Fisk property and Steptoe Butte roadway.
We are all increasingly aware that nature is important to the health and well-being of adults and children. Multiple studies show that park visits contribute to good mental health and increase learning capacity and self-esteem in children. And all these things contribute to societal health and quality of life. We also know that parks are a strong economic driver in our state, contributing about $1.4 billion each year to state and local economies and supporting 14,000 jobs. Park visitors buy recreational equipment and frequent local businesses to pursue entertainment and purchase fuel, food and supplies.
In short, a healthy park system contributes to a healthy state, and a larger portion of public tax support is needed to ensure the public receives the full range of benefits Washington’s iconic state park system can provide.
Lucinda Whaley, Spokane
Chair, Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.