‘Discover Pass’ eyed to help keep state parks open

Lawmakers may ask outdoor enthusiasts to pay annual fee of $30 per vehicle

By Kathie Durbin and Allen Thomas

Published:

 

Bird-watchers, picnickers and off-road vehicle enthusiasts may soon have to shell out $30 per vehicle for an annual “Discover Pass” that would allow them to pursue their favorite pastimes on state land.

The grim alternative: Washington could close the gates at more than 100 state parks as early as this fall if the Legislature fails to find a new source of funding.

With almost no hope of getting general fund dollars to manage recreation over the next two years, three state agencies — State Parks, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife — have asked the Legislature to approve the user fee to keep state lands open to public use.

Under House Bill 1796 and Senate Bill 5622, the $30 pass would allow members of the public to visit state parks, state wildlife areas and state forests administered by DNR.

SB 5622 had a hearing in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Marine Waters on Feb. 2 and is being rewritten to address issues including how the agencies would enforce the pass program. At the hearing, hikers, white-water paddlers, horsemen, mountain climbers and mountain bikers said they support the pass if the alternative is closure of state lands.

“We are in new territory,” state parks director Don Hoch told the committee. “We believe this bill is our best chance at keeping the gates open at state parks.”

Campers, who pay a separate fee, would not need the pass, but 90 percent of the usage at state parks is day use, Hoch said.

Only six parks generate enough revenue to cover their costs, said parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter. They are Grayland Beach, Bridgeport, Ike Kinswa, Kanaskat-Palmer, Pearrygin Lake and Steamboat Rock.

“Unless we get a solid alternative funding source to replace lost general fund dollars, the majority of parks in the system could be reduced to ‘zero service,’” Painter said. “They are public places, but the gates would be closed, electricity and water turned off, no restroom and no staff to provide public safety and public service.”

DNR spokesman Bryan Flint said his agency will propose language allowing reciprocal agreements so each agency’s law enforcement staff could enforce the fee on all three categories of state land. He said DNR also plans to deputize its employees so they can issue tickets to fee scofflaws.

The U.S. Forest Service introduced recreation passes — mostly parking fees at trailheads — in the late 1990s to help cover recreational upkeep on national forest trails and campgrounds. Today, said spokesman Chris Strebig, the passes raise about $1.3 million annually for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which gets to keep 80 percent to repair picnic tables, remove garbage and do general maintenance.

The State Parks Department experimented with a vehicle parking fee for day users at some sites beginning in 2003. But the Legislature rescinded the fee in 2006, after stepped-up enforcement triggered public opposition.

This year is different, Painter said.

“This pass is quite a bit more important for us, because the governor’s budget proposes taking state parks off the general fund in the next two years,” she said.

Gov. Gregoire’s budget would provide $18 million in “bridge money” for parks over the next two years, but the department would still lose $42 million in the 2011-13 biennium, which amounts to 30 percent of its budget, Painter said.

“We have to have enough of a base to keep camping sites open,” she said. “If we lose those campgrounds, we lose that revenue. “

Under HB1796, Parks would get to pocket up to 85 percent of fee revenue, an estimated $61 million per biennium. DNR and Fish and Wildlife, which see less intensive recreation use on their lands, would each get 7.5 percent of the total, or $5.5 million per biennium. Revenues exceeding $71 million would be distributed evenly among the agencies.

Painter said state parks would need to raise $61 million from the new fee in 2011-13 and $80 million in each biennium afterward to avoid wholesale cuts.

The DNR oversees 5.7 million acres of state forestland, aquatic lands and other property that get heavy use from hunters and off-road vehicle users. Close to home, the agency manages Southwest Washington’s Yacolt Burn State Forest.

Flint said the $30 pass should provide the funds the department needs to keep its recreation programs open and available.

Some 843,000 acres in state wildlife areas, which once saw use mainly by hunters and fishermen, now are visited by bird-watchers, rafters, kayakers, paragliders, rock climbers and backcountry horsemen, said Jennifer Quan, land division manager with Fish and Wildlife. The agency, which has not seen an increase in its operating budget since the early 1990s, also oversees more than 700 boat launch sites.

Currently, hunters and fishermen get a vehicle access pass good for state fish and wildlife lands when they buy a hunting or fishing licence. Other users pay no fee.

“We’re concerned about putting our fishers and hunters in kind of a double jeopardy here.,” said Phil Anderson, state wildlife director

Former House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, a Hoquiam Democrat, spoke against the Senate bill at last week’s hearing.

“There’s a better way than all this bureaucratic fees and fines,” she said. She suggested raising the new opt-out parks donation, paid when people renew their vehicle licenses, from $5 to $15. The 2009 Legislature adopted the fee to help keep struggling parks open, but the state allows people to opt out of paying it.

Unlike raising taxes, imposing new user fees requires only a simple majority vote in each Legislative chamber, according to the Office of Financial Management.

But anti-tax activist Tim Eyman said he will be keeping close watch on the user fee bills to see how the revenue they generate would be distributed.

“It boils down to the nexus” between the fee and who would benefit from it, he said. “If they can get the nexus in there, it would be a simple majority. If it’s a general benefit to everyone,” he predicted, state user fees would ultimately be ruled tax increases.