State parks need state support, says report

Published on Wed, Aug 8, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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The Washington State parks system cannot and should not be expected to raise enough money to support itself independent of state general fund revenue, despite the state legislature’s desire to shift state parks in that direction.

This was the main thrust of a draft report to Washington’s Office of Financial Management released by state parks officials last week. The state’s 2011 operating budget required the report, the final draft of which is due August 15, to detail the state parks commission’s progress in making the parks system self-sufficient and describe any changes to state law that could facilitate the shift.

“The commission concludes that state parks cannot meet its mission and be entirely financially self-supporting. The goal of 100 percent operational self-support is impractical,” state parks officials wrote.

The portion of the state parks budget funded through the state’s general fund has plummeted from roughly 66 percent in the 2007-2009 biennium to 12 percent in the current two-year cycle. The state legislature has no plans to support state parks with general fund revenue in the 2013-2015 biennium.

Due to reductions in state support, the state parks commission has been forced to cut 200 full-time positions from parks across the state between 2008 and 2012, going from 595 full-time staff to 395, according to the draft report.

“Much uncertainty remains, because it is unknown whether earned revenues will meet projections. The state parks department’s budget is largely comprised of revenues not yet earned, as opposed to money in the bank,” state parks officials wrote in the report.

Washington state parks officials made the case that no state parks system in the U.S. is entirely self-supported, and pointed out even the national parks system derives only 10 percent of its revenue from entry and service fees.

However, the report stayed clear of asking for general fund revenue even approaching the amounts of five years ago. Officials wrote that they should be able to maintain current parks operations with $18 million in general fund support in 2013-2015.
“You’ve got to keep the services open that you’re asking the users to pay for,” parks commission spokesperson Sandy Mealing said. “We want to keep that sustainable level of support so people keep coming to the parks.”

With the 100 percent self-sustaining model seemingly out of the question, the report lays out options to bring in additional revenue to state parks coffers. These included creating a state parks endowment fund, partnering with other governments or nonprofits to improve parks and provide maintenance, and selling some parks lands.

The commission started receiving public comment on the draft report as soon as it was released last week, Mealing said. The report also incorporated months of public comment from meetings across the state. Comments on the draft report itself show general support for state parks mission and include suggestions such as raising interest in state parks through a focused advertising campaign.

Other comments, however, faulted state parks officials for not being creative enough in finding revenue-generating options. One comment suggested state parks land be sold off because state government has no business owning land for purely recreational purposes.

Access pass revenue still not meeting expectations

Attempting to plug the hole left in the state parks budget, the legislature and the parks commission had implemented access pass requirements for state parks across Washington. But nearly a year since they were passed into law, the $30 annual Discover Pass and $10 day use passes have yet to meet their original revenue projections.

The state parks commission projected $54 million in access pass revenue would be brought in for the 2011-2013 biennium, Mealing said, or about $27 million per year. Not counting July 2012 figures, which have yet to be tabulated, access pass revenue has totaled $15.6 million since June 2011.

“Overall, it’s still lower,” Mealing said. “We’re not going to catch up in just a few months.”

Nevertheless, access pass sales have increased over the summer months, with April bringing in $1.2 million and June bringing in $2.1 million. Additionally, total Discover Pass sales have outpaced day-use access pass sales by about 21 percent since they were implemented, with roughly 416,000 Discover Passes being sold to 327,000 day-use sales.

Mealing said the recent legislative change that made Discover Passes transferable between vehicles has proved popular with park goers. The state parks commission is also working on selling Discover Passes with fluctuating effective dates, meaning they can be used later than their purchase date and be sold as gifts. Mealing said gift Discover Passes should be available by fall.

Ted Morris, manager of Birch Bay State Park, confirmed Mealing’s report of park visitors’ appreciation of the Discover Pass’s transferability between two cars, saying the “one car, one Discover Pass” rule was the most common source of complaints. Morris could not cite exact sales figures for access passes at Birch Bay State Park, but said he seems to be selling more passes than last year, especially since the addition of a mobile credit card reader that can be used anywhere in the park.

Morris, a 36-year veteran of Washington State Parks, thinks visitors are beginning to understand the dire situation the parks system is in and the need for access pass revenue. The last time the parks system charged for access was six years ago, and Morris said it took about a year and a half for visitors to acclimate to the idea of paying for state parks.

“I truly believe most people are supportive of parks,” Morris said. “If they know this is the only way, they’ll support their state parks system.”

Click here to read the draft report.