State parks shuffle local staff

As busy summer season begins, county's two sites prepare to function with primarily temporary personnel

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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photoBattle Ground Lake State Park manager Jim Presser greets visitors Thursday. Of the four year-round staff members in place at state parks in Clark County last year, only Presser remains in the same position.

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When Matt Smith became a seasonal maintenance mechanic for Clark County's two state parks earlier this year, he lost more than a job description.

The setting wasn't new — Smith had worked previously as manager of Paradise Point State Park, near La Center. But the feeling was completely different. Suddenly, Smith was a temporary employee in the place he'd literally called home for two years.

"It's very difficult," he said of the transition. "There's definitely a loss of identity as a park ranger. It's more than just a job. It's an identity."

Smith was among dozens of permanent employees whose jobs were either downsized or eliminated as the Washington State Parks department wrestled with an $11 million budget hole over the winter. Some people left the agency entirely. Some took seasonal positions. Some were shuffled from one park to another, displacing other workers based on seniority.

The agency started the cutbacks with 189 year-round rangers, said department spokeswoman Virginia Painter. In the end, 60 of those positions — almost one-third — were cut back to seasonal.

Smith now splits time between Paradise Point and Battle Ground Lake State Park. He works on equipment, facilities and other odd jobs as needed. But his future remains uncertain. The position only lasts until October, after which he'll have to find another way to make ends meet. Smith worked his last day as Paradise Point manager in February, then moved out of the park house to find a new place to live.

The dramatic staffing changes mean Clark County visitors will see some new faces in new places at Battle Ground Lake and Paradise Point. Of the two parks' four year-round staff in place last year, only one — area manager Jim Presser — remains in the same position this year.

"We roll with it, but it hurts because we've known these folks and their families for many years," Presser said.

Cathy Eden knows the feeling. After 17 years at Manchester State Park near Bremerton, Eden was reassigned in March to Paradise Point, where she's manager. She called the forced move "pretty devastating," but said the transition has been eased by "a wonderful group of people" she now works with.

As area manager, Presser oversees both Paradise Point and Battle Ground Lake, but spends most of his time at the latter. He helped a steady trickle of visitors on a recent morning from the park's ranger office.

Crowds will only grow as the busy summer season picks up and regular sunshine returns. And the shift toward seasonal staffing will make parks workers and volunteers even more crucial while they're around, Presser said. Battle Ground Lake now has four temporary park aides to go with its two year-round rangers. Paradise Point also has four seasonal workers in addition to Eden, its only year-round employee.

The height of the summer season means more cleanup, plus fee and law enforcement while more visitors come through, Presser said. But when seasonal workers go away in the winter, the workload doesn't go with them. There's still plenty of maintenance and trail work to be done during the slow months, Presser said. Battle Ground Lake alone has 10 miles of trails.

"We've got more responsibility," Presser said, "and over 12 months we have less staff."

Overall visitor numbers have dropped significantly since last July, when the state introduced the "Discover Pass" requirement for all of its state parks. Users must pay $10 for a single day, or $30 for a one-year pass.

The state park system's financial future may depend on the Discover Pass and the money it brings in. Though officials have scaled back initial revenue expectations, they're not banking on state help, either. Painter said the agency has been told by lawmakers it may not get any general fund dollars during the 2013-15 budget cycle. That's only about 12 percent of the parks budget now, she said.

Through all the cuts, Washington didn't close any of its 116 state parks. Keeping them open remains a priority as the agency — and its relentlessly positive workers — weathers a continuing financial storm, Painter said.

"Keeping parks open is important if you're asking people to pay for something," Painter said. "They have to have something to pay for."

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.