In our view: Pay for State Parks

New fee in Washington is unfortunate, but legislators had no other rational choice

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"Regrettable but necessary.” If the state of Washington had a dollar for every time those three words are spoken in response to budget-tightening measures, the state might raise enough money to solve the budget problem. There’s no better way to describe the Discover Pass that is newly required of anyone using a state park.

Its title correctly implies a path to enjoyment and excitement as Washingtonians explore our numerous natural treasures. But the fact is, visiting state outdoor sites now comes at a cost, and a hefty one for many people. Either the $30 annual Discover Pass or a $10 day-use permit must be displayed on park visitors’ vehicles. Violators will face a $99 fine. However, state officials say they will focus on education and won’t start enforcing the new law until Tuesday.

In Clark County, the new fee applies to Battle Ground Lake State Park (a couple miles northeast of that city) and at Paradise Point State Park (near Interstate 5 and the East Fork of the Lewis River.) Reed Island State Park near Washougal is also affected by the new fee, but as of Friday the park was closed due to flooding.

The intent by legislators this year was to use the Discover Pass to generate enough revenue to ultimately make state parks financially self-sustaining. And generally speaking, The Columbian has typically supported user fees in most nonemergency cases. So, necessary? Yes, indeed.

But it’s still regrettable, as explained by Philip McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors, in a recent Associated Press story. The fees go against the legacy of state parks as destinations for people who can’t otherwise afford day-trip vacations. “Those folks are not going to be able to get in (to the state parks),” McKnelly said. “If they’re worried about where that next meal’s coming from, that $30 (for the annual fee) is going to be quite a bit.”

And state parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter said, “This is a pretty dramatic shift. It’s an unfortunate reality.”

There could be a lessening of the pain, however. State officials are exploring the possibility of free visiting days for state parks, but it remains undecided where and when that plan might be implemented.

Legislators, really, didn’t have much choice as they wrestled with an overall state revenue shortfall of $5 billion. At least Washington isn’t closing any state parks. California soon will close about 70 state parks and Oklahoma lawmakers have moved to close seven.

And at least Washington policymakers haven’t decided to generate revenue by opening state parks to oil and gas drilling, as is expected to happen soon in Ohio. Cash-strapped lawmakers are looking at corporate sponsorship of state parks in places like New Hampshire, Maine, Virginia and Georgia.

The fees requirement in Washington is no surprise. We’ve been moving in that direction for some time. Two years ago, the state’s general fund covered two-thirds of the $150 million operating budget for state parks, and that portion was reduced to less than one-third in the budget cycle that just ended.

If it’s any consolation, Washingtonians still have the same 120 state parks and 7 million acres of state recreation lands to enjoy. It just won’t be free anymore. That’s unfortunate, but during this economic crisis, it’s a rational reality.

For more information about how to buy the annual pass online or by telephone or at a licensed dealer, visit http://discoverpass.wa.gov.