Longtime parks and trails advocate joins state board

Punteney has served city of Vancouver for more than 3 decades

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Gov. Chris Gregoire has selected Kelly Punteney, a longtime Vancouver parks manager and trails advocate, to fill a vacancy on the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

Punteney joins the seven-member commission of volunteers who oversee management and policy matters for the nearly 120 parks in Washington’s state parks system. He steps in as Commissioner Cecilia Vogt of Yakima leaves after 12 years on the commission.

Serving the city of Vancouver for 36 years in parks and recreation, Punteney is known for his role in designing and developing popular trails throughout Clark County. He considers connecting a system of trails to parks in the Vancouver area his greatest accomplishment.

Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, met Punteney years ago when he worked for the city of Vancouver, and she has been familiar with his years-long effort to connect trails in the Vancouver area since.

She called Punteney a “renaissance man” and said it is time to have someone like him on the commission to represent Southwest Washington.

“He’s a planner, an artist and a designer,” she said. “He’s got vision. He brings people together and he knows how to get things done, so he’s a good choice.”

The 63-year-old Punteney, who was appointed last week, joins the commission at a grim time: funding for state parks will soon disappear, and park visitors are on the verge of having to buy a new Discover Pass for day use to keep parks services running.

Punteney disagrees with the new funding policy.

“I don’t quite understand that,” he said. “I believe I pay taxes, and taxes should cover all services.”

Even so, Punteney said the Discover Pass only makes up for the commission’s lost funding. Pass sales are not intended to increase its budget.

Punteney predicted that convincing the public to accept the Discover Pass will be a challenge, but he said the commission must make it work. Even so, he said he has concerns about charging visitors who may struggle to afford day passes.

“Maybe that’s the way of the future: the user pays,” he said. “Maybe we’ll come up with (something) for those who can’t pay.”

Attendance is bound to dip once the Discover Pass goes into effect, Punteney said.

He suspects high gas prices may compound the issue, encouraging drivers to stick to visiting only local parks. That could boost attendance at local parks, however, bringing in more funding to keep them running, he said.

Despite a likely summer drop-off in visitors, Punteney said he does not expect any parks to shut down from lack of funding. If any are facing closure, though, he said he will fight to keep them open.

“I don’t know if we’ll actually close parks,” he said, “but I will resist any kind of sale of parks. It may have to happen, but it would not be my first choice.”

Once Punteney gets to know all the responsibilities tied to his new role in the agency, his big goal will be to enhance the state trails system.

“I think we can build a statewide trails system that can connect with the local trails systems,” he said. “It could be the wave of the future for people to walk and bike throughout the region.”

Southwest Washington has been underrepresented on the commission for the past decade, Punteney said. But he hopes his presence will change that.

“We really are a major part of the state now, population-wise,” he said. “So I think it’s important for us to be heard and seen.”