Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Advertisements coming soon to some Washington state parks

The trees. The water. The serenity. The fresh air.

The advertisements?

Washington State Parks have a lot to offer. There’s a reason they’ve been in existence, and protected, for a century.

But soon, thanks to a recent 5-1 decision by the state parks commission to launch an in-park advertisement pilot program, commercial advertisements will be added to the list of state park amenities. Parks officials say the ads will debut ASAP.

Depending on your point of view, this can be seen as necessary sacrifice or unnecessary sacrilege.

As a guy who makes his living, at least on part, thanks to advertising revenue, it’s hard for me to get too bent out of shape by this development. It’s an eventuality the state started heading toward back in 2014, when a 50-year-old ban on commercial advertisements was repealed to make way for digital ads on Washington State Parks’ websites.

That move, it should come as no surprise, was in response to ever-shrinking state funding for our parks — the same forces that led to the $30 Discover Pass in my glove box, allowing my family entrance into the state parks we once enjoyed, basically, free of charge.

As Tristan Baurick of the Kistap Sun has detailed throughout this saga, money from Washington's general fund once covered 60 to 80 percent of the park system's operations budget. But starting around the time of the Great Recession, that reliable source of cash began to dry up.

Today, Washington’s general fund chips in only 10 to 20 percent of the state parks budget.

So the parks commission has been forced to look elsewhere. Sandy Mealing, creative services manager with Washington State Parks, tells me digital ads started appearing on parks websites in November, though so far, she says, “We’re not raking in the dough for that.”

The hope, however, is that one day digital advertisements will result in “significant revenue.”

I know the feeling, Washington State Parks.

And now come the in-park ads, which Mealing describes as “phase two” of the significant transition. She tells me a small number of state parks already feature limited in-park advertisements, and the move toward a more consistent policy isn’t anticipated to be a big moneymaker. Instead, she says, the decision is more about improving the visitor experience and “providing support to the local economy.”

The question is, do in-park ads go too far? New, creative ways to find revenue are great, and sadly necessary. So are efforts to help local businesses, like the small-time eateries, hotels and wineries that depend on state park visitors.

But financial desperation shouldn’t be an excuse to sully our protected places. Think Dash Point State Park, brought to you by Comcast and Coca-Cola.

It’s a concern Mealing, and the parks commission, are cognizant of. “We're extremely sensitive to this and extremely opposed to the commercialization of state parks,” commission chairman Steve Milner said during the recent vote.

Mealing assures me: “The goal, and the intent, is not to commercialize parks.”

That sets the stage for the fine line state parks will now be attempting to walk.

Translation: Don’t expect billboards, the sale of naming rights (like in the joke above), or advertisements for booze, smokes, pot or firearms.

Instead, look for small things this summer like brochures for local restaurants and lodging at kiosks or visitor centers, posters on bulletin boards, and even the occasional product placement — like boxes of Grape-Nuts in rentable cabins and yurts. (Not making that up; Mealing cited it as a specific example.)

As mentioned, at this point it’s just a pilot program, kicking off in 10 yet-to-be-determined parks this year — five in Eastern Washington, and five in Western Washington. The results will be analyzed, and agency officials will report back to the parks commission this time next year.

If it’s deemed a success, Mealing expects it to spread systemwide, to all of Washington’s more than 120 state parks, as early as 2017.

“Some people understand that we do need to increase some revenue, regardless of how small it would be, and they expect that we’d do it properly,” Mealing says of the public reaction so far.

“We’ve heard on the other side of it, where people think there’s no place for advertising in our parks.”

Ultimately, only time and user experience will provide an answer to that question. If it’s done right, and with proper care, perhaps the ads will be no big deal. Maybe we’ll all get used to them.

Best-case scenario: State Parks visitors don’t notice at all. I guess that’s what I’m hoping for.

Now, if you’ll please excuse me, I have an unexpected hankering for Grape-Nuts.

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