State park attendance expected to dip

New fees to offset funding cuts will likely deter some people

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AT A GLANCE

What: Discover Pass.

Cost: $30 per vehicle for annual pass or $10 for single-day pass.

What it covers: Daytime visits to state parks and other state-operated recreational lands. Overnight camping fees are separate.

When: Begins July 1.

Number of state parks in Washington: 118.

Website: http://www.parks....

Washington State Parks and Recreation officials expect state parks to take an attendance hit this summer with the new Discover Pass vehicle fee for visitors starting July 1.

Instead of having free daytime access to state parks, visitors will have to pay for either a $30 annual pass or a $10 single-day pass for their vehicles.

The pass goes into effect as the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission prepares to lose all its support from the state general fund.

Legislators created the new day-use fee to save state parks from shutting down under budget cuts this summer, but officials expect some parks may still close due to loss of revenue from declining attendance.

The fee represents a radical change in funding for Washington’s state parks. Roughly 30 percent— $46 million— of state parks funding for this biennium came from general fund allocations.

For the new biennium, Parks and Recreation will have $17.3 million from the general fund to pay for its employees during the transition, but after that the commission will no longer receive tax dollars to support its costs.

Revenue from the Discover Pass, donations and other fees will be paramount to keeping services running, said Virginia Painter, the commission’s public affairs director.

“This is not extra money,” Painter said. “If we want a parks system, this is what it’s going to take to keep it open and available for people.”

Officials hope pass sales will make up for the loss, but they expect a rough transition for both parks and visitors.

“Anytime you charge for somethingyou didn’t charge for before, there’s going to be resistance,” Painter said, “and for some people, it’s going to be hard for them to come up with the money.”

In turn, Painter and others are gearing up for what could be a steep decline in park attendance once the Discover Pass goes into effect.

Typically, about 90 percent of state park visitors stay for day use only, managing to avoid paying a camping fee under the current system. However, she said that pattern will change, since the Discover Pass creates a charge for day use.

Other states that raised park-use fees have reported that Washington parks can expect to wait about three years to begin to see a recovery in attendance, Painter said. After five years, attendance should fully recover.

State parks officials expect participation in the $5 donation program offered through the Department of Licensing to drop as well.

The program has generated more than $20 million for state parks in this biennium, commission Finance Director Ilene Frisch said. With the new pass, though, the program’s revenue is projected to drop to $5 million for the next biennium.

Karl Hinze, park manager for Beacon Rock State Park, is optimistic that visitors will support the idea of the pass enough to maintain park services. However, Hinze knows parks like his could suffer a shutdown if Discover Pass sales struggle to take off.

“That’s always a possibility,” he said.

Along with a number of other state parks, Beacon Rock has been slated for possible closure in the past couple years amid a series of drastic funding reductions. Though the Discover Pass kept Beacon Rock open this time, Hinze said it will take a while for visitors to adjust to the new fee.

“People are creatures of habit and they’re used to getting into parks for free,” he said. “So, there’s going to be a learning curve.”

Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, voted against the Discover Pass because he said he is concerned the fee will place greater financial burden on the middle class.

Parks officials will explore their options to address the cuts, which include streamlining staff and closing parks for certain days to avoid an all-out closure for any particular place, Painter said.

“But we’re pretty thin everywhere now,” she said.

Volunteer groups are consulting with the commission to raise money and see how they might help keep park services running in a financial pinch over the summer. Painter said the commission will have to find creative solutions, such as relying on volunteer support, to keep any parks from closing.