People can pitch in at parks for a free annual parking pass

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SEATTLE — If you can't pay, you can still play.

Visitors to Washington state parks who don't want to shell out $30 for an annual parking pass can earn one by volunteering 24 hours to clean beaches, build trails or plant trees.

The sweat equity is a little-known option for acquiring the permit required by the 2011 Legislature. It helps raise money for parks and recreation areas overseen by the Department of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife Department.

"All of us are concerned about the notion some people can't afford to go to parks," said Washington State Parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter. "So this is a way we can provide something and get some support for the park system, since we're mostly dependent on user fees at this point."

Here's how it works if you want to work 24 hours for a pass and earn the equivalent of $1.25 an hour.

Parks and the other agencies post cleanup or other work projects on websites. Volunteers also can check with rangers for opportunities. A ranger or other supervisor signs off on the hours. Volunteers do the work, mail in vouchers and receive a Discover Pass in return.

It's not just a perk; it's also kind of a merit badge, recognizing the service of volunteers who get their parking the old fashioned way -- they earn it.

About 500 complimentary parking passes were issued between July 2011 and September 2012. That compares with just over 1 million passes sold — about half were $30 annual passes and half were $10 one-day passes, Painter said.

The revenue is split up — 84 percent for parks, 8 percent for DNR and 8 percent for F&W.

The passes are sold in stores that sell fishing and hunting licenses, and are available online and through state park offices. Parking without one could bring a $99 fine.

Parks officials hope more people buy the passes to help offset cuts in state funding. In addition, the parks department is working on marketing campaigns. Painter said park users can watch for a gift pass in December for holiday shoppers. The agencies also are partnering with companies such as Subaru, where dealers give out passes with test drives.

For those interested, a beach cleanup is set for Nov. 17 at Westhaven State Park in Westport. It's organized by the Surfrider Foundation, a San Clemente, Calif., based nonprofit that promotes beach access.

"I'm happy they're doing it. It's a good way to get people to come out and be engaged," said Casey Dennehy, Surfrider's Washington Pacific coast project coordinator in Westport. "In some ways I wish we didn't have to pay for what is ours, but I do know there's a fiscal problem in the state."