Bill to charge fees at parks awaits signature
JEFFREY P. MAYOR; Staff writer
Beginning in July, visitors might have to pay to stroll the beach at Kopachuck State Park, hike to the top of Mount Si or use the state boat launch on Black Lake outside of Tumwater.
The state House and Senate passed legislation to create the Discover Pass to access Washington’s 119 state parks and millions of acres managed by the state departments of Fish and Wildlife and Natural Resources.
The bill, awaiting a decision by Gov. Chris Gregoire, sets the cost of the pass at $10 a day or $30 a year per vehicle. The pass is expected to generate $64 million to $72 million every two years.
A majority of the revenue – 84 percent of the first $71 million generated each biennium – would go to the State Parks and Recreation Commission. The other two agencies would each receive 8 percent.
State Parks would get the bulk because it faces a cut of more than $50 million in its state general fund allocation.
Cody Pederson supports the idea of a pass. On a sunny Friday afternoon, he stopped by Kopachuck State Park, not far from the Gig Harbor home where he grew up.
“If it takes some user fees, parking fees to keep our parks clean, I’m OK with that,” he said. “If it’s a way to keep people here maintaining our parks, I’m all for that.”
MEETING CURRENT NEEDS
That’s the goal, said State Parks and Recreation director Don Hoch.
But there still might have to be some service cuts, he said.
“I don’t think we’re going to close parks, but there might be some service reductions,” Hoch said. “There might be some gates closed, some rest rooms closed, but people can still get into the parks.
“We have to look at how we can maintain the parks with the money we have.”
That is why Carla Jonientz of Olympia supports the new pass.
“We’re so used to having our state parks, we have so many of them, and they are great,” she said. “But you keep hearing they’ll shut them down.”
If state parks and education are competing for funding, education deserves the bulk of the support during the state’s fiscal crisis, Jonientz said. Not everyone can afford to send their children to private school.
“Most people, if they want to, can afford to support our state parks,” she said. “It is one thing I am willing to pay for. And I’m on a retirement budget, not a big budget.”
If the parks pass is created, parks such as Tolmie and Joemma – once on a list of parks to shutter – will remain open.
But development of parks, such as the one planned at the confluence of the Nisqually and Mashel rivers, remains on the back burner, Hoch said. The most recent plans called for an initial investment of $10 million to start developing the 1,230-acre park.
“It would be hard for the public to understand why you are building something new when we’re trying to keep open what we already have,” Hoch said.
At the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Discover Pass revenue would be just one means the agency would use to reduce a possible $24 million deficit.
“The $5.5 million, if the program plays out as we project, is the amount we think we need to keep our lands and access sites open,” director Phil Anderson said.
The department also would receive an estimated $14.2 million through increased fees for most fishing and hunting licenses. Senate Bill 5385, which would establish the fees that take effect Sept. 1, also awaits a decision by Gregoire.
For the state Department of Natural Resources, creating the pass is crucial to keeping its recreation areas open. None of the budgets proposed by the governor, the House or the Senate included money to maintain those areas.
“Places like Tahoma State Forest, Elbe Hills ORV area, Capitol State Forest, Tiger Mountain, we’ll be able to keep them open,” said Bryan Flint, the department’s communications and outreach director.
Some of the $5.5 million the agency expects to receive also would be used to implement recreational planning efforts going on at places like Tahuya State Forest in Mason County.
ONE PASS TOO MANY?
Per Moerkeseth said paying for a pass would keep him from going to places such as Kopachuck and Penrose Point state parks. Both are a short drive from his Gig Harbor home.
“It feels a little like overkill,” he said. “It seems like I already pay into a system that should have ample funds.
“I don’t want to take the time to have to go get a pass,” Moerkeseth said. “If places like that are blocked because of the need for a pass, there are other things I can find to do or places to go.”
Andy Carey of Ashford said he worries people will tire of the need to buy yet another pass.
“I think many people who use state lands for recreation would much rather buy an annual pass, or donate volunteer time, than have the lands shut down,” Carey said. “But many people already buy an American the Beautiful Pass for federal lands, a permit for the sno-parks, donate on their car tab renewal for State Parks and now a Discovery Pass.
“That would equal $160 a year in passes to go snowshoeing say eight times.”
The $80 federal pass provides access to lands managed by the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation.
It is one of many passes already available.
A $30 state sno-park pass provides access to 120 parking sites for cross-country skiers, snowshoers and snowmobile riders. A $30 annual Northwest Forest Pass allows access to trailheads and other facilities on national forests.
Then there are day-use fees, such as the $8 charged at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
Jonathon Guzzo, advocacy director at Washington Trails Association, said he understands some people might be suffering “user fee fatigue.” The other option, he said, is for the agencies to shut down some recreation areas.
“We believe the Discover Pass is an important safety net to supplement recreation funding in the face of our state’s unprecedented budget cuts these past few years,” he said. “But these funds should not replace appropriated general fund dollars in times of state prosperity.”
If the bill becomes law, the Discover Pass would take effect July 1.
Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640