Washington’s state forests and parks may be priceless, but that isn’t keeping policymakers from floating an admission charge: $30.
That’s the cost of an annual parking pass for public lands in a proposal receiving its first hearing in the Legislature Wednesday, Feb. 2. Those who don’t buy the “Discover Pass” would pay $10 for a single day’s visit or face a ticket.
It’s a bargain, supporters say, considering the alternative is closing off lands to the public to help the state close a $4.6 billion budget shortfall.
“The reality is, we’re talking about laying off teachers, getting rid of senior-citizens programs,” said Sen. Kevin Ranker, chairman of the Senate panel that will consider the fee plan today. “That’s the competition for parks. If it’s seniors and kids versus the environment, who do you think wins?”
Democrats Ranker of San Juan Island and Rep. Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim introduced fee bills this week at the request of Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
In December, as Gov. Chris Gregoire rolled out plans for moving state parks off taxpayer funding and onto a “user-pays” scheme, the parks board guessed it would cost visitors $10 per car or $5 for a day-use pass.
Those estimates jumped after the agency surveyed the public for an idea of possible participation levels and after it joined with the other two agencies that manage state lands for a single per-vehicle permit. The pass could be picked up by drivers renewing their car tabs or at one of the hundreds of locations for buying hunting and fishing licenses.
Previously, Goldmark’s agency and Fish and Wildlife had been contemplating a per-person “Explore Washington Pass,” perhaps $45, to camp and hike on the 6.5 million acres they manage. Ranker, who also plans to introduce Gregoire’s legislation to merge natural-resource agencies, told the agencies he wanted a single pass.
The agencies would need the passes to raise at least $71 million, including $60 million for the parks, to make up for Gregoire’s proposal to cut them off the state’s general fund.
Jim King Jr., who lobbies for parks enthusiasts as coordinator of Citizens for Parks and Recreation, expects many to fork over $30.
“In terms of everything else you pay for to go recreate, that’s not a big fee,” King said.
That’s the same price as an annual pass to Mount Rainier National Park or a Northwest Forest Pass for National Park trail access.
Still, some are worried about the burden of fees. House Democrats are looking “to see if there’s some alternative,” House Speaker Frank Chopp said Friday.
To worries that fees will drive recreation beyond the reach of some people, Ranker says it’s still a cheap alternative to a lot of family outings. And with the single per-car fee, a family or a group of fishing buddies can split the cost, he said.
And there would be a way to get a Discover Pass for free: volunteer on state lands for at least 40 hours.
The details of the day-use fee, which would be available through each of the three agencies at places such as entrances to parks, could end up drawing the most controversy. King said $10 a day seems high.
Van De Wege said he hopes most people buy the annual pass and few pay the day-use fee.
The Legislature approved a $5 day-use fee in 2003 but repealed it three years later after visitor numbers plummeted. Lawmakers replaced it with an optional $5 donation that drivers can make when renewing their car tabs.
Nearly two in five drivers make the donation.
Ilene Frisch, director of administration and finance for state parks, said 1.1 million people – more than half of those who donate now – would need to buy parking passes to make up for the proposed budget cuts.
Four other Democrats and a Republican, Sen. Dan Swecker of Rochester, signed on to Ranker’s bill. Ranker said some in the GOP minority may be slow to support fees before a broader budget solution is unveiled, but he sees it as an affordable choice.
“It’s an optional fee,” Swecker said, “so if folks want to pay it, great.”
The cost of spotting violators concerns Rep. Jeannie Darneille of Tacoma, the Democratic vice chairwoman of the House budget committee. She’s worried the state would have to man each entrance with someone to check passes.
But Ranker said no ramp-up of enforcement is planned. With many state lands in remote areas patrolled only sporadically by rangers, ticketing could be spotty.
It’s like riding the light rail in Seattle, Frisch said: Not everyone will be checked for their tickets, but you never know when a check will come.
If state funding lapses and fees don’t take its place, Frisch said, only a dozen or fewer of the state’s 119 parks could survive on their own.
Even with fees, the parks board has suggested that some parks would close. But Ranker is confident they would all survive.
“If this fee bill passes, I think we can keep our parks open,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll have to do any park closures.”
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