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News / Sports / Outdoors

Washingtonians buy Sno-Park permits in droves. Who decides how the money is spent?

By Gregory Scruggs, The Seattle Times
Published: February 19, 2023, 11:26am
2 Photos
The sledding hill at Hyak Sno-Park is full of kids with bright plastic sleds.Public snow access areas at Snoqualmie Pass are full and overflowing on weekends, creating headaches and hazards alike.
The sledding hill at Hyak Sno-Park is full of kids with bright plastic sleds.Public snow access areas at Snoqualmie Pass are full and overflowing on weekends, creating headaches and hazards alike. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

SNOQUALMIE PASS — Washington’s Sno-Park program is flush with nearly $2 million in revenue, almost double pre-pandemic sales. So, when you buy a permit for a day or season of sledding, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing — some of the cheapest ways to play outside in winter — who decides how the money is spent?

The nine volunteer members of Washington’s Winter Recreation Advisory Committee sit down every summer to dole out dollars for the season ahead. Come winter, they check on the fruits of their labor firsthand.

Last month, the WRAC met at the state’s busiest winter recreation hub, Snoqualmie Pass. The committee consists of six area members who come from different geographic parts of the state, plus three snowmobilers. The program’s bylaws stipulate that members represent the whole state, not their particular patch.

The pandemic-heightened thirst for winter recreation has resulted in chronic overcrowding at wintertime recreation access points in Western Washington. And though throngs of crowds have fueled record Sno-Park revenues, local winter recreation clubs have questioned the program’s structure.

Some argue the state’s winter recreation system should reflect similar programs in the West, levying a per-user fee instead of charging per car. And despite the current windfall, leaders of Kongsberger Ski Club, King County’s preeminent Nordic ski organization, are advocating for a less-centralized approach to Sno-Park recreation that would reward the Seattle area’s outsized purchasing power with proportionate maintenance.

Here’s how the Sno-Park sausage gets made — who is buying passes, how much money the passes generate and how that money is spent — plus a look at suggested reforms to the program, and what the nearly 50-year-old program’s future might hold for the Mountains to Sound Greenway.

The backstory

Flashback to the early 1970s: All of the downhill ski areas in the Cascades had been up and running for years, if not decades. But intrepid adventurers at The Mountaineers wanted to explore the snowy landscape beyond ski area boundaries. They relied on pullouts along plowed roads — but even those got crowded quickly when the state’s population was just 3.5 million, less than half what it is today — and realized there had to be a better way.

Mountaineers members, led by legendary trail advocate Ruth Ittner, lobbied the state Legislature to create a self-contained fund for snow removal financed by the sale of permits to winter sports enthusiasts. In 1975, Olympia lawmakers established the Sno-Park program.

The basic premise hasn’t changed much since then.

Each winter, from roughly Nov. 1 to April 30, a $25 per day/$50 per season permit is required to park at any of the 48 nonmotorized Sno-Parks around the state. (There is a separate program to fund the motorized Sno-Parks used by snowmobilers.) In 1985, the nonmotorized program expanded to incorporate grooming for Nordic skiing. Today that perk carries a $70-per-season add-on required to visit eight regularly groomed Sno-Parks. Along the Interstate 90 corridor, that includes Hyak, Cabin Creek, Crystal Springs and Lake Easton Sno-Parks — parks most heavily frequented by Seattle-area residents. Farther afield, it encompasses Lake Wenatchee, Nason Ridge, Chiwawa and Mount Spokane Sno-Parks.

All these prices are per vehicle, not per person. For a family or carpool, that means $120 per season grants unlimited access to groomed Nordic skiing, plus privileges at snowy trailheads tucked in every mountainous nook and cranny east of Puget Sound (there are no Sno-Parks on the Olympic Peninsula).

Compared with season passes at groomed Nordic centers around the West, Washington’s Sno-Park program is a relative bargain. Sno-Parks in California and Oregon, plus Park N’ Ski sites in Idaho, are lower-priced, but do not include any grooming.

“You’re going to pay a heck of a lot more money elsewhere to get the same access we have in Washington state,” said WRAC vice chair Mike Burns, who belongs to the Spokane Nordic Club and lives in Region 3 (Ferry, Stevens, Pend Oreille, Lincoln and Spokane counties).

Ahead of the 2021-22 season, permit prices were increased for the first time since 2009. The WRAC now adjusts prices every three years given the fluctuating costs of snow removal and grooming. The program routinely took in $1 million to $1.2 million per season in the mid-to-late 2010s, before the supercharged pandemic winter, when it generated $2.257 million in revenue. Revenue leveled off to $1.953 million last winter — with sales on pace for similar numbers this season thanks to abundant early snowfall.

“We have this huge windfall,” said chair John Baranowski, who comes from the Yakima Nordic Skiing and Snowshoeing Council and lives in Region 5 (Kittitas, Yakima, Klickitat and Benton counties). “We’re in a healthy situation budget-wise.”

What to spend it on

So where does this bumper haul go?

Recreation clubs, outdoors nonprofits and park managers submit proposals ahead of winter to the WRAC, which funded in full nearly every request in the 2023 fiscal year. In the approved $2.4 million budget, expenditures include roughly 23% for grooming, 20% for equipment replacement, 15% for snow removal, 13% for salaries and overhead, 10% for education and enforcement, 10% for developing new Sno-Parks, 4% for emergency reserves, and 3% for sanitation.

For Puget Sound snow lovers, that meant good news, like $10,000 to establish the new Annette Lake Sno-Park, $11,000 to fix up the 92 Road Sno-Park that serves as a jumping-off point to one of the Mount Tahoma Trails huts, and a record $153,618 to groom the Cabin Creek and Erling Stordahl trails maintained by Kongsberger Ski Club. These trails are prime destinations along I-90 for Seattle-area snowshoers and Nordic skiers with Sno-Park passes; if you’re a snow lover heading into the Cascades from King County, you’ve likely enjoyed a trail maintained by the Kongsbergers.

Reform proposal

Kongsberger president Rune Harkestad argues Seattle-area snow-seekers are pumping an outsized amount of cash into the program without seeing that investment reflected in local Sno-Parks. Public records analyzed by The Seattle Times show King County addresses accounted for 50% of Sno-Park permit sales over the last three years — over one-third from Seattle alone — while Sno-Parks along I-90 are receiving about 45% of the snow removal, sanitation and grooming budget this season. Harkestad’s club has questioned the program’s structure, which stands to benefit Sno-Parks that own their equipment, and has argued for the legions of Seattle-area powderhounds to get more bang for their buck.

Sno-Parks on federal land must outsource their snow-removal and grooming expenses, while those on state land enjoy the use of state-purchased heavy equipment like groomers and snowmobiles. As such, Harkestad says measuring budgets at Sno-Parks on state versus federal lands is like comparing apples to oranges: Budget figures for contract grooming on federal lands do not account for the heavy equipment used at places like Lake Easton, Lake Wenatchee and Mount Spokane state parks.

Much of the terrain maintained by the Kongsbergers sits on federal land. The massively popular Cabin Creek and Erling Stordahl trails maintained by the club are benefiting this winter from a budget bump that allows for 1,000 hours of grooming, up from 775 last season, enough for six days per week. That’s more grooming days than the privately run Summit Nordic Center just down the road.

Harkestad said that having one of the largest line items in the Sno-Park budget is misleading, because the contracted groomers that must be hired to maintain parks on federal land bill for all their costs — which are likely to go up. As existing contracts expire, he expects $155-per-hour groomers to start charging at least $250 per hour.

If contractor rates go up, I-90 Sno-Parks may get less service for the same amount of money. Meanwhile, state parks that already own their grooming equipment won’t face that inflation.

Harkestad sent a letter to Washington State Parks winter recreation program manager Pamela McConkey last February proposing WRAC changes to improve the program’s transparency, track revenue by geography and reform the representation system (no WRAC members live in King, Pierce or Snohomish counties). McConkey has since retired. The Seattle Times shared the letter with a Washington State Parks representative last month, who said the program’s current staff had not seen the letter and did not have any comment on it.

The Kongsberger president would like to see more local control over expenditures to build out much-needed infrastructure at I-90 Sno-Parks, which he asserts are the system’s primary moneymakers.

“Decentralize the entire decision-making,” Harkestad said. “This system may have made sense in the 1970s, but today with the crowds and pressure on outdoor recreation, it is antiquated and needs to be revamped.”

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Baranowski points out that the program’s bylaws are explicit about the committee’s statewide obligation. “We represent everyone in the state of Washington, but we’re also cognizant of where the money comes from,” he said.

Down the trail

The Sno-Park program’s boosters proudly point to the fact that it is revenue neutral and the current run of flush winters has made for boom times. There is lots of snow to play on, and lots of money to provide public access to it.

Too much snow is a good problem to have. But in the event of a snowless winter, although snow removal costs would be lower, permit sales would also decline. The following season would likely see cutbacks regardless of how much snow falls.

“If you have a bad year, you’re toast,” said Baranowski. “Having funding based on prior year sales is a challenge,” Burns added.

With a budget that spends most of what it brings in to keep the basics going, the emergency reserve sits at just $103,000.

That concern has some committee members and other stakeholder groups contemplating if the days of the Washington Sno-Park bargain should come to an end. For Burns, the answer is simple: “A per-user fee, just like everyone else does.”

But while Hyak Sno-Park has a staffed entrance booth, many Sno-Parks are located in remote areas with near zero infrastructure, where the snow play areas are overseen by winter sports clubs with limited volunteers. Law enforcement agencies and park or forest rangers currently monitor Sno-Park permit compliance by scanning windshields in a parking lot, not heading out onto the trail to check each skier and snowshoer. On just one Saturday this winter, Kittitas County law enforcement issued some 150 violations at the popular Gold Creek Sno-Park — money that goes to the county, not the Sno-Park coffers.

It would take an act of the state Legislature to make structural changes with the Sno-Park program, but the WRAC has experimented with alternate measures.

This winter, the WRAC funded the Cle Elum Ranger District of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest to provide additional enforcement. Rangers go out first thing in the morning on weekends to Gold Creek Sno-Park with a QR code so the unaware can buy a Sno-Park permit on the spot with their smartphone. This change could offer a glimpse into the future of winter recreation around the increasingly busy Mountains to Sound Greenway.