New Discover Pass for Washington parks gets mixed local reaction

Sales have been brisk in first week

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Aimee Witherspoon knew it was coming.

As she pulled into Battle Ground Lake State Park on Friday, horse trailer in tow, Witherspoon promptly shelled out $30 without batting an eye. It was her first visit to the popular spot since Washington began requiring a “Discover Pass” for day use at state parks and other natural areas.

Visitors can either pay $10 for the day or $30 for a year. As a regular at Battle Ground Lake, Witherspoon opted for the latter.

“We’ve got to pay somewhere to support things,” said Witherspoon, a Ridgefield veterinarian. “Shouldn’t you pay for an area you use a lot?”

Just over a week after the new requirement went into effect July 1, Discover Passes continue to sell briskly. But not everyone is happy with the change, a product of the 2011 Legislature. And enforcement remains spotty.

At Battle Ground Lake, park manager Jim Presser applied the rules Friday with less than a hard-line approach. He required visitors to buy a Discover Pass at the park entrance. But if a car slipped by without one while he stepped away, Presser left a notice of the new rule on the windshield — not a $99 fine, as the new law calls for.

Almost 26,000 Discover Passes had been sold through the state’s license-purchasing system by late this week, the vast majority of them yearlong passes. Those purchases translated into more than $750,000 in revenue — plus another $560,000 in Discover Passes sold to other vendors for resale, according to Virginia Painter, a Washington State Parks spokesperson.

Local reaction has varied.

“There are some that are very unhappy, some that won’t be back, some that think it’s a good idea,” Presser said. “We’re getting a pretty good mix.”

Vancouver resident Jason Sapp spent Friday morning fishing and skipping rocks on the lake with his two children. He called himself “absolutely opposed” to the change, saying park visitors are on the hook for enough through existing fees and licenses the state already requires.

“You’re always paying,” Sapp said, looking to the lakeshore from the end of a wooden dock. He said he’d like to see more information about where exactly the money from the new passes goes.

That’s exactly where state officials’ efforts went last weekend, just after the Discover Pass took effect. Against the backdrop of an ailing budget, Painter noted the revenue is not meant to pay for a new program or service. Rather, “it is our basic funding” to keep the park system operating, she said.

The pass grants access to some 7 million acres of recreation land in Washington, including state parks, trails, water-access points and other natural areas. Enforcement of the Discover Pass falls to three state agencies: Washington State Parks, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

The Discover Pass doesn’t affect overnight camping. Regular park fees for campgrounds still apply.

The new rules allow some leeway. At Battle Ground Lake, for example, four 15-minute parking spaces allow visitors to swing in for a bathroom break or to retrieve belongings they left behind. No pass required.

Witherspoon often comes to Battle Ground Lake with her 12-year-old event horse, named “Worth the Wait.” She prepared the horse for a day of conditioning Friday, eyeing a competition this August.

With miles of horse trails, you won’t hear much griping about the Discover Pass from other Battle Ground Lake riders, Witherspoon said. She’s been coming for about 30 years.

“People don’t realize what a great place it is,” Witherspoon said.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541 or eric.florip@columbian.com.