State parks are showing their age as they mark centennial

The News TribuneMarch 31, 2013 

Washington’s state park system is a venerable one – fourth-oldest in the nation and four years older than the national parks.

And it’s showing its age. As it marks its centennial this month, the 117-park system is in trouble. Deep trouble.

Once the parks were open free to the public. Now visitors must either have a $30 Discover Pass or pay $10 for a daily pass. Park hours have been reduced, permanent staff has been cut almost 35 percent since 2009, 66 of 189 full-time rangers are now seasonal and maintenance has been deferred so much that many facilities are in pitiful condition. Educational programming is virtually a thing of the past.

As a recent Seattle Times report points out, the only time the system has been in worse straits was during the Great Depression, when the governor shut it down for two years.

As with so many things these days, the recession and its impact on the state budget are largely to blame for the parks’ predicament. The system had been limping along in recent years with budget cuts, but that all came to a head in 2011 when it went to a funding model based almost entirely on user fees.

The new $30 Discover Pass was expected to foot the bill for the state’s share, but it’s fallen far short, raising only about half as much as legislators had hoped it would.

No other state relies as heavily on user fees to fund its parks, and it’s clear that Washington can’t continue on this path if it hopes to have any semblance of a decent park system. Adequately funding parks isn’t just something state residents should want for themselves; attracting out-of-state visitors – who provide a welcome injection of outside money – is an important benefit of good parks.

Compare Washington’s state support for parks – $17.2 million this biennium, down from $94.3 million in 2007-09 – with Oregon’s. In the current biennium, Oregon’s 241 parks will get $191.8 million from a combination of user fees, lottery revenue and RV registration fees. No money comes from the general fund.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday proposed giving this state’s park system $24.7 million. Combined with donations and Discover Pass revenue – which is expected to increase to $43 million in the next biennium – that should keep the parks at least operating. It probably won’t put much of a dent in the system’s deferred maintenance.

As the state parks system begins its second 100 years, today’s citizens and lawmakers must ensure that it will once again be a source of pride. In coming years, as population growth continues and more of us live in urban environments, state parks will be needed more than ever.

Our descendants should have at least as much access to these oases of the natural world as we have had.

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