As charges go up, visits to state parks decline

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OLYMPIA — Fewer people are visiting Washington State Parks since the introduction of parking pass charges last July.

When the state Legislature slashed parks funding last year, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission adopted the Discover Pass to maintain operations. The pass, which is required for vehicle access to state parks, cost s$10 for a single visit or $30 for the year. There are also transaction and dealer fees if the passes are purchased at a licensed dealer, by phone or online.

These charges may be proving too much for park enthusiasts. While nearly 6.8 million people attended state parks during the day in July 2010, only 5.6 million visited in July 2011, after the pass became mandatory.

If these attendance rates and the revenue con

nected to them don't turn around quickly, the parks could fall into disrepair.

The local outlook is a little brighter. Despite statewide trends, visits to Battle Ground Lake State Park are up. More than 41,000 people made a day trip to the park in July 2011, after the Discover Pass was required. This was up from about 27,000 day visitors in July 2010.

Pete Mayer, director of Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation, said Battle Ground Lake State Park is a popular destination because it provides a wide range of activities near an urban center.

Attendance rates for parks run by the city and county have jumped as well, he said. He attributed the rise in visitors to the recession — more families are taking "stay-cations" instead of traveling out of state.

Revenue has risen, too, he said.

"We did better than budget this last year," he said.

In fact, the local office brought in $346,000 in parking passes in 2011, up from $326,000 in 2010. Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation charges are similar to the state's. An annual pass is $40, and a day pass costs $3.

Mayer said the passes provided by the city and county, as well as the state passes, are a "tremendous value."

The Discover Pass, for a lower cost, offers access to all state parks, water-access points, heritage sites, wildlife and natural areas, and campgrounds managed by the Department of Natural Resources and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"I think, in some cases, it's too low for the value derived from it," Mayer said.

Virginia Painter, public affairs director for Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, said the price of the annual pass is hard to beat. The price of yearlong access to the parks is comparable to the cost of a family night at the movies, she said.

Though visits to state parks are down statewide, she said this is a knee-jerk reaction to the new parking fees.

"This is something that we're used to," she said.

Painter said it's normal for organizations to suffer a 30 to 50 percent drop in attendance the first year after an increase in fees, but visitor numbers usually return to the pre-fee rate after about three years.

She also attributed the lower attendance to a lack of consumer knowledge about the Discover Pass. Because the law requiring the pass took effect so quickly last year, the commission didn't have much time to promote the pass. Now, because more people understand the concept, Painter expects pass sales to increase.

However, based on worse-than-expected pass sales, the commission revised its original projected budget, Painter said. Offiials had expected to bring in $54 million from July 2011 to July 2013, but slashed that projection to $33 million in December, based on the current budget.

This cut forced reductions in programs and staff, including a reorganization of management positions, she said. Many year-round ranger positions were cut to seasonal jobs.

This "bare-bones" organization is not sustainable, Painter said. If parks continue to be operated at the current funding level, they would begin to degrade due to lack of maintenance, she said.

"But we're doing our best to hold it together," she said. "That's the mode we're in right now."

In the recent session, the Legislature transferred $4 million to the state parks commission from a state Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account. This money will fund energy upgrades, preventative maintenance, replacement equipment and improved customer service, Painter said.

That money, along with possible increased revenue from Discover Passes, could keep the parks afloat. Also, this fall, the commission will request $16 million to $20 million from the state's general fund for the next biennium, which begins July 2013.

If allocated, a large portion of the state money would pay for the state-mandated free and reduced passes provided to veterans and seniors, as well as others, Painter said. Any additional money would fill a gap in funding and help with operational costs. She said many people believe funding state parks is a necessary service the government should provide.

"We have a phenomenal number of amazing places," she said. "These parks would rival any other place."

Anna Marum: 360-754-5427; Twitter: col_Olympia.