Washington State Parks took in more money than expected during the past two years as the pandemic drove a boom in outdoor recreation.
State Parks collected almost $123 million between July 2021 and April of this year, $12 million more than anticipated. That’s according to a financial report delivered at a State Parks and Recreation Commission meeting on Wednesday. Almost 70% of the income was from camping fees and the sale of Discover Passes, which are needed to access state recreation sites.
Despite rising revenue, the agency is struggling to hire and keep staff, with the Eastern Washington region staffed at only 60% of target levels.
Parks Director Diana Dupuis said Wednesday the COVID-19 pandemic changed how state parks are used. “We’re going through a renaissance right now,” Dupuis said.
But at the same time, she added, the agency must look at new revenue models.
For example, the shoulder seasons of early spring and late fall are busier than normal, which might mean adjusting staffing levels at campsites in traditionally less busy months.
Similarly, campsites now begin filling up on Thursdays instead of Fridays, as many people who work remotely spend their last day of the workweek at Wi-Fi-friendly sites.
Overall, state parks have seen an increase in visitors in recent years. In 2021, Washington State Parks saw 11.5% more visitors than in 2019. Though the numbers leveled off slightly last year, they were still up by more than 4 million compared to pre-pandemic years.
Agency revenue followed similar trends. For example, Discover Pass sales spiked in 2021 but slowed last year.
According to the commission, Discover Pass sales were up almost 11% compared to the projections two years ago. Camping revenue was up 7% while cabin rental revenue was up 34%.
Heather Saunders, State Parks development director, said in addition to vacancies in Eastern Washington, the agency has staff shortages with ongoing capital projects.
Saunders said the agency is trying to hire quickly for open positions, as well as outsource a number of contracts to get projects underway more quickly. Parks currently has 26 projects under construction, 42 projects in the design phase and 12 planned but not yet started.
They’ve also received almost $99 million from the Legislature to spend on projects over the next two years.
This includes $24.2 million for improvements at the Nisqually State Park, a project being done in partnership with the Nisqually Indian Tribe. The funding will go toward the visitor center, trails and boardwalk.
The Legislature also set aside $120 million for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, which funds land conservation efforts across the state. It’s the largest amount of money ever given to the program, according to the Parks Commission. Much of it is spread out over multiple agencies, but $17 million will fund state parks projects, including a long-distance trail system.
The completion of those projects, however, will partially depend on staffing levels, Saunders said. Saunders added she is in the process of making staffing plans to ensure that the department can deliver on these projects.