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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cash-strapped state parks banking on Discover Pass, new approach

Skiers are among thousands of visitors at Mount Spokane and other Washington State Parks. Visitors can expect reduced services as the agency struggles for funding. (Rich Landers)

The Washington State Parks system, the fourth oldest in the nation, is at a brink of uncertainty in the state’s lingering budget crisis.

After 98 years, officials are looking at switching from a traditional parks model to operating like a business, with emphasis on the bottom line.

The Legislature has been weaning the agency from state general fund tax support, forcing heavier reliance on user fees.

But the new Discover Pass, required since July for vehicle access to state parks and many other state lands, has not generated the expected revenue.

The State Parks and Recreation Commission is meeting Tuesday to discuss a budget reduction plan, as well as how it will approach the Legislature to make the $30 annual Discover Pass more appealing to consumers.

“We see our budget is going to fall short and we’re trying to plan ahead for how to deal with that,” said Sandy Mealing, agency spokeswoman.

More cuts are inevitable, parks officials say, although they refrain from suggesting any of the remaining 116 state parks will be closed.

“It would be counterproductive to close parks while we’re asking people to pay for them,” Mealing said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep parks open.”

Pink slips to some of the agency’s 516 full-time employees – already down by about 80 positions since July 2008 – are likely to be in the mail before the end of the year.

“I don’t know whether I’ll be here when the dust settles, but I’ll be doing everything I possibly can to cut costs and bring in money,” said Chris Guidotti, Riverside State Park manager in Spokane. “But I don’t think there’s any question that some services will have to be reduced.”

State Parks officials across the state are diverting more of their attention from providing recreation to generating revenue.

For example, Guidotti said previous staff cuts have left Riverside State Park with three empty houses he’d like to market as vacation rentals.

“It’s all a balancing act,” he said. “The new equestrian campground that will be finished next season will generate money, but not unless I have staff to take care of it.”

Riverside State Park has 10 full-time staffers to tend more than 10,000 acres ranging from the Columbia Plateau Trail at the southern end of Spokane County to the east end of the 37-mile Centennial Trail at the Idaho state line.

One proposal affecting the Spokane area would eliminate a park manager position and some rangers by combining Riverside and Mount Spokane state parks.

Mount Spokane park’s five rangers deal with a spectrum of trails over the park’s 13,919 acres plus nordic ski trail grooming, a downhill ski area concession, snowmobilers, one campground, a lookout rental and a major effort to keep the mountain road snow-free during winter.

Riverside State Park includes about 80 miles trails in the core area alone, campgrounds at the Bowl and Pitcher and Long Lake and several boat launches on the Spokane River and Little Spokane River.

“No business would take that all on over 10,000 acres, because it isn’t profitable to deal with noxious weeds on such large scale and deal with forest health and archeological resources while providing recreation and leaving a legacy for future generations,” Guidotti said.

Yet state parks officials are looking more closely at the business model as a funding option.

Unless the Legislature takes a different course on state park funding, officials have little choice.

State Parks officials have the daunting task of cutting up to $30 million from the $148.6 million biennial budget.

The agency already has cut programs and terminated staff, consolidated region offices from four to three and left staffing vacancies open. Travel has been restricted and staff has been redistributed to reduce expenses.

In 2007-2009, the agency received 60 percent of its budget from the state general fund, down from as much as 75 percent in previous years.

The contribution by state taxpayers was reduced to 30 percent in 2009-2011 and that will drop to 12 percent in 2011-13.

State Parks have been told by the Legislature to expect no general fund money starting in 2013.

The agency is doing all it can to preserve its $12.5 million reserve fund, Mealing said, noting that the public has two ways to support state parks in lieu of tax support:

• Donate on the convenient check box when renewing Washington vehicle licenses.

• Buy a $30 annual Discover Pass, or the $10 daily Discover Pass.

“The situation would be bleak if Discover Pass and other revenues do not increase,” said Don Hoch, State Parks director.

To compensate for the reduction in taxpayer funding, 36 percent of the state parks’ total budget is supposed to come from sales of the Discover Pass.

The agency was projected to get $54 million for 2011-2013 from its share of the Discover Pass sales when the 2010 Washington Legislature enacted the pass.

But since it was required for vehicle access to state parks and other state lands on July 5, the pass has fallen short of expectations, bringing in $7.2 million so far.

State Parks gets 84 percent of the Discover Pass revenue while the departments of Fish and Wildlife and Natural Resources each get 8 percent.

“The Discover Pass is new, and like any program it takes time to get up and running,” Mealing said. Sales increased in October when the Department of Licensing began offering the convenience of purchasing the Discover Pass along with vehicle license renewals, she said.

Parks officials have defined two major issues with the Discover Pass.

• It’s not transferable to other family vehicles. This issue will be addressed in the coming Legislature.

• Many people still don’t know about it despite widespread publicity since the 2010 Legislative session.

“It’s a challenge to reach people,” Mealing said.

Meantime, many staffers worry that parks would have to sell their souls under a business model to become self-sufficient.

Services certainly will be reduced, along with resource protection and enforcement. Maintenance likely will be deferred in many cases.

Schedules may be changed and some parks might be closed during low visitor use days of the week.

Another possibility is hiring fewer commissioned rangers and using lower-paid staff to do some of those jobs.

“Badges cost money,” one park ranger said. “Rangers have to go through a lot of expensive training, but on the other hand, they don’t have to call for help when they see somebody doing something illegal.”

One of several parks officials who asked to remain anonymous said the task the agency will be addressing this week involves one pivotal question: “What is the lowest level of service they can provide and still attract customers to visit state parks.”

On the web: Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission,