Washington parks seek funding certainty

Program needs funding from the Legislature to remain viable, report says

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 
photoVancouver residents, from left, Randy Dunning, Brandon Nuzum and Andres Soto-Peres fish at Battle Ground Lake State Park.

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As revenues continue to fall short of projections, state parks leaders are sending a message to Washington lawmakers: We can't do it alone.

The Washington State Parks department plans to seek $27 million in general fund money for the upcoming 2013-15 biennium. Parks officials say that amount would keep afloat an agency battered by budget cuts in recent years. It would also add stability to a department betting big on Discover Pass user fees, which haven't yet settled into a predictable revenue stream.

That $27 million is a request, not a guarantee. Legislators have previously said state parks may get no general fund money in 2013-15. But that's simply not an option if state parks are to remain a viable program, according to a department report released earlier this year. The state Parks and Recreation Commission reiterated that stance during a meeting in Vancouver last week.

"We're really at a crossroads," said state parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter.

The Washington State Parks department has grappled with major cutbacks in recent years, seeing its state support erode from $98 million in 2007-09 to just more than $21 million in the current biennium. The department's self-generated revenue has climbed significantly, but not enough to avoid lopping a third of its permanent full-time positions off the payroll since 2008.

The cuts have been felt at a local level. A total year-round staff of just three now runs Clark County's two state parks -- Paradise Point, near La Center, and Battle Ground Lake. Other employees have been downsized to seasonal positions, reshuffled to other places or let go.

Parks officials have looked to managers and rangers on the ground to determine how best to use resources in Southwest Washington, regional field operations manager Steve Brand told the commission last week. The agency has recently experimented with automated Discover Pass pay stations at a handful of state parks, including Beacon Rock in Skamania County.

That's a work in progress, assistant operations director Mike Sternback said during the commission meeting. But the agency may use the technology at additional parks in the future, he said.

One thing the agency hasn't done is close any of Washington's 116 state parks. Keeping them open remains a top priority, Painter said, particularly now that people are being asked to pay more to directly support them.

One problem: The Discover Pass, hastily rolled out last year as a new revenue source, simply hasn't met expectations. The program — requiring state park visitors to pay $10 for a day pass, or $30 for a year — was projected to bring in $23.4 million in the first year. It managed only $13.2 million.

The trend may not have found its normal yet. Discover Pass revenues in July 2012 were actually less than July 2011, the first month the pass was first introduced. August 2012 came in about the same as last year. Those numbers are affected by many outside factors driving park visits, Painter said, including weather and gas prices.

"It's really difficult to project," Painter said. "If you're living on your projections, it makes it very, very tough and uncertain."

It's unclear what help state parks will get from Washington's general fund after lawmakers return to Olympia. State revenue projections aren't rosy, and plenty of other agencies are already jockeying for position ahead of the 2013 legislative session.

"It's going to be a challenge," Painter said of her department's budget outlook. "We're going to just hope for the best."

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