Local state parks feeling the impact of declining state revenue

Published on Wed, Nov 30, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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The Washington State Parks Commission backed the four-month-old pay-for-access passes in the face of the state legislature drastically reducing the parks commission’s share of state general fund revenue over the past few years.

The parks commissions has sold approximately 51,000 Discover Passes and about 173,000 day-use passes since they were initiated July 1, parks commission spokesperson Sandy Mealing said. The parks commission has received about $3.3 million from the annual and day passes sold between July and October.

Starting July 1, $30 annual Discover Passes or $10 day passes are needed to park at Washington’s state parks and other state-managed areas, including campgrounds, heritage sites and wildlife and natural areas. Initial public reaction has been mixed, and Mealing said parks commission officials knew it would be challenging to make people pay to access state parks for the first time since 2003.

The 2003 day and annual passes, which cost more than the current passes, were abolished after three years because they were no longer needed. However, Mealing said the new annual pass and its day-use counterpart are entirely necessary for the continued operation of Washington’s state parks system.

“The Discover pass is vital to our survival,” Mealing said. “It has to work.”

What put the state parks commission in this predicament? Declining state revenue forced state legislatures to make tough decisions, and state parks have generally become the first hit when the state budget needs trimming, Birch Bay State Park manager Ted Morris said.

In the state’s 2007-09 biennium budget, the state parks commissions collected 66 percent of its funding from the state general fund. In the 2009-11 biennium, that number was slashed to 30 percent.

In the proposed 2011/13 budget, only 12 percent of the parks commission budget came from the state general fund with a third expected to come from annual and day pass revenue.

Morris said there has been some frustration within the state parks community over the parks commission’s switch from relying on the state’s general fund to fees gathered from the public. The drop in revenue has led to staff cuts at state parks, and Birch Bay State Park is no exception.

“In essence there just isn’t enough money to [fund all departments],” Morris said. “It’s a very bleak economic time for the revenues coming in from the state.”

Morris has only two full-time rangers, including himself, to manage the 194-acre Birch Bay State Park; down from three since February 2010. Not having a third ranger makes the upkeep of the park’s grounds more difficult and forces some maintenance, such as building repair, to be delayed, Morris explained.

Jason Snow, the park manager at the 20-acre Peace Arch State Park, tells a similar story. He and a full-time gardener are the only employees at Peace Arch; all the other maintenance he and the gardener cannot get to is performed by volunteers.

Snow said there are a number of ways less revenue affects his park, the most serious being the backlog of regular maintenance it creates. Snow said the park’s most common visitors are cross-border travelers using the park as a way station. These frequent visitors typically use the bathroom, which puts another level of strain on the park’s finite resources.

“If you don’t have the funds and you don’t have the staffing, how are you going to keep up?” Snow asked.

Neither Morris nor Snow became park rangers to charge people park access fees, but both would rather sell annual and day passes than see parks close. Fortunately, both have encountered generally positive reception to the passes once they explain the dire straits state parks are in.

“For $2.50 per month [for the $30 Discover Pass], people are realizing it’s a pretty good bargain to pay for state parks,” Morris said.

The most common complaint Snow has heard has not been cost related, but the fact that the Discover Passes are not transferable between cars. He said he has heard from park attendees and volunteers that they often do not use the same cars from the summer to winter seasons and would like to use the same Discover Pass for both.

Both park managers utilize an educational approach to telling park visitors about the passes rather than immediately handing out $99 notices of infraction to those who do not have a pass. Morris and Snow both make a point of explaining why the pass is required, and subsequently do not end up writing many notices; for example, Birch Bay State Park’s rangers have written 35 since summer.

“When you look at the thousands of people who come through the park, it’s a pretty high compliance rate,” Morris said.

With the new passes in place, peak attendance could be expected to drop, but Snow said that hasn’t necessarily been the case. He said Peace Arch State Park has seen a general decline in attendance since August, but that is most likely due to the colder temperatures.

Birch Bay State Park, on the other hand, has seen attendance increases since the passes were instated in July. Morris said July and August attendance have increased 9 percent over the same months in 2010, while September’s attendance numbers are up 34 percent over last year.

With the pay-for-access program still in its infancy, it’s difficult to predict how much money it will bring in the long run. Morris said, though, this situation closely resembles the start of the 2003 passes in that park attendance dropped off slightly at the beginning of the program but recovered within a year.

Though revenue forecasts are difficult to nail down, one thing remains constant: Morris and Snow consider their parks their homes and would do just about anything to keep them open for public enjoyment.

“That’s the one thing about park rangers, we’ll make it happen,” Morris said. “I would hate to see in this low time giving away these jewels of Washington state.”