Are Washingtonians falling out of love with our state parks? Here in the Evergreen State -- where the magnificent outdoors is cherished by a recreation-fixated populace -- are we turning our backs on those 116 prized state parks and 7 million acres of state recreation lands?A case could be made for the affirmative answer. Not only has attendance dropped at state parks, volunteer hours have plummeted. But falling out of love could be a premature conclusion. Other factors are at play.
First is the Great Recession, which has deprived many people of the financial resources needed to travel to and enjoy state parks.
Second is the Discover Pass, a $30 annual pass or $10 day-use permit that the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission adopted last year after the Legislature slashed funding for state parks. This user fee might make sense for cash-strapped governments during economic crises. In fact, The Columbian endorsed the Discover Pass as a regrettable but necessary way to support state parks. Still, imposing a user fee is more than just a financial hardship; for many it's an intimidating factor. Many people could have a philosophical objection.
Witness, then, how the second factor (asking people to pay) conspires with the first factor (people have less money) to exacerbate the problem.
A third factor actually is more of a suspicion. It's the belief that a knee-jerk response might be holding back many park visitors who ultimately will return to state parks. This theory is supported by state parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter. She told Columbian reporter Anna Marum that increasing fees often leads organizations to suffer the biggest attendance drop in the first year, and in the case of the state parks, visitor numbers could return to the pre-fee totals in a few years.
There's also the knee-jerk reaction to the details about the Discover Pass. Perhaps many Washingtonians just don't want to spend the time and effort to learn about the pass. Plenty of details are easily obtained at Discover Pass.
Clark County has two state parks: Battle Ground Lake, where attendance actually increased in July 2011 over July 2010, and Paradise Point State Park, near Interstate 5 and the East Fork of the Lewis River. Both parks are experiencing cuts that are seen statewide. Across the state, in a workforce that used to include 189 year-round rangers, 60 positions have been reduced to seasonal jobs. Battle Ground Lake has four seasonal workers and two year-round rangers while Paradise Point has four seasonal workers and one year-round employee.
The workload can be challenging, especially when the seasonal workers go away. For example, whereas many people think of Battle Ground Lake State Park as a great picnic and camping spot, it also has 10 miles of trails over 280 acres.
We don't think Washingtonians are falling out of love with our state parks. Ultimately, we hope attendance returns to its former highs at state parks. (It dropped to 5.6 million in July 2011 from 6.8 million in July 2010). And we'd like to see state parks volunteers return to the earlier numbers. (Volunteer hours at state parks were down 40,186 last year). A greater awareness of the value of the Discover Pass, and a brisk economic recovery (cross your fingers) could trigger both of those resurgences.
For information about volunteering at state parks, visit Washington State Parks.
For information about volunteering at Vancouver-Clark County Parks and Recreation, visit volunteer program or call 360-487-8344.