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Budget Ax is Looming Over Wash. State Parks

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December 19, 2011 by   Leave a Comment

These days, it helps to have a sense of humor if you work in the Washington State Parks system. Just ask Mark Shaw.

According to a report in the Columbian, Vancouver, it was last week that Shaw, a park ranger at Paradise Point State Park, received a letter from the state informing him that he’d been promoted. One problem: The same day, he received a phone call telling him he’d likely lose his job.

But Shaw isn’t bitter. He mostly just shrugs it off and smiles. “Promoted and laid off on the same day,” Shaw said. “You’ve got to laugh.”

Shaw’s position is among 160 state parks jobs that will either scale back or evaporate entirely as the agency wrestles with an $11 million funding gap in its current two-year budget. Those cutbacks likely would have been more severe, but the state parks commission dipped into its reserve fund to cover another $4 million.

Clark County’s two state parks won’t escape the budget ax. Paradise Point and Battle Ground Lake State Park both operate with two year-round staff members, but by next year that could drop to just one at each park — leaving only a single park manager to tackle most of a heavy maintenance workload in the winter months. That means trail work, vehicle repairs and cleanup, among other tasks.

The result for parkgoers might be slower response times if they need a ranger or manager, Shaw said. But for parks staff, the cutbacks mean livelihoods in jeopardy, said Jim Presser, Battle Ground Lake park manager, who also acts as an area manager.

“It’s very tough, because there are a lot of rangers that may lose their jobs that have families and careers,” Presser said. “That may be gone.”

State parks system cutbacks have reached all levels of the agency, said department spokeswoman Virginia Painter. The most recent wave of job cuts won’t mean putting 160 people out of work, she said. Many of those positions will become seasonal or part-time, with existing employees taking new assignments largely based on seniority. Some may have to re-apply. But as many as 50 parks workers could lose their jobs entirely, Painter said.

The reductions come as lawmakers in Olympia prepare to close a gaping hole in the state budget. At the same time, the $30-per-year Discover Pass — rolled out last summer as a new requirement aiming to boost funding for state parks — has fallen well short of revenue targets.

The new pass, which took effect July 1, was projected to raise $65 million within two years. But in its first four months, the program collected only $7.2 million, according to the state parks department.

Painter attributed at least some of that to a hasty rollout just weeks after the legislature approved the program earlier this year. When it finally did start, park visitors knew “very little” about the new requirement, she said. And many park rangers were lenient about enforcement at first.

Painter said the department is hoping for better results during the peak season next year, with more people aware of and open to the Discover Pass. A legislative tweak proposed this month could also make the pass transferable between vehicles. A program like the Discover Pass takes time to get fully off the ground, Painter said.

“We’re fairly hopeful that it will build,” she said.

Presser was less optimistic. He said visitor numbers have dropped at Battle Ground Lake since the Discover Pass was introduced, and many of the park’s users have already purchased a 12-month pass, anyway.

Meanwhile, state parks will prepare to absorb cuts Shaw said will make it “almost impossible” for them to function well. He echoed other rangers’ sentiments when he said the system will only end up hurting more.

Painter said the cuts aren’t intended to be a long-term solution. “This isn’t a sustainable approach,” she said. “This is an approach to get us through this time.”

No parks will close under the plan, Painter said. And she noted many of the job cuts and realignments haven’t been finalized just yet. But Shaw isn’t holding his breath. He’s already found a few other job prospects in the region, and remains optimistic that he’ll land on his feet.

“You just have to keep fighting the good fight,” Shaw said.

And that promotion letter? That’s still posted on the wall of the Paradise Point park ranger office.

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