The Washington State Parks system has its 100th birthday this year, and park workers are hoping the occasion will help rally public support.
The future of 116 state parks is up in the air, with budget cuts that already have eliminated some jobs, shifted full-time workers to part-time and left a maintenance backlog of $100 million, the Public News Service reported.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has recommended $19 million be taken from the General Fund to shore up the parks. Without that funding, predictions are grim, says Brian Yearout, president of the Washington Federation of State Employees Local 1466, the union that represents the park workers.
“What they’ve said is that you can’t just close parks,” Yearout said. “It would have to be a combination of park closures, seasonal closures, campground closures, reduction in services. The initial numbers they’re rolling out are between 40 and 70 parks would have to close.”
Yearout says state parks boost local economies by attracting visitors and by using local workers for construction and maintenance. The state park system maintains more than 700 historic structures as well as trail systems, campsites, and boat ramps, he says.
It will be up to the Legislature to decide whether to accept the governor’s recommendation.
State parks have gotten some funding from the Discover Pass, a user fee created in 2011 to replace revenue lost to budget cuts, but Yearout says it hasn’t taken off the way they had hoped.
“I don’t think we ever imagined it would be quite this bad – but we probably should have. But what we didn’t take into account is that a program like this takes two, three, sometimes four seasons to stabilize and get to a level where you can actually project, year after year, what that revenue stream’s going to be.”
State parks receive 84% of the Discover Pass revenue, and 17 “friends” groups help with maintenance and fundraising for certain parks around the state. Volunteers already put in an estimated 280,000 hours a year for the park system.
As revenues continue to fall short of projections, state parks leaders are sending a message to Washington lawmakers: We can’t do it alone.
The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission plans to seek $27 million in general fund money for the upcoming 2013-15 biennium. Parks officials say that amount would keep afloat an agency battered by budget cuts in recent years. It would also add stability to a department betting big on Discover Pass user fees, which haven’t yet settled into a predictable revenue stream, The Columbian, Vancouver, reported.
That $27 million is a request, not a guarantee. Legislators have previously said state parks may get no general fund money in 2013-15. But that’s simply not an option if state parks are to remain a viable program, according to a department report released earlier this year. The state commission reiterated that stance during a meeting in Vancouver last week.
“We’re really at a crossroads,” said state parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter.
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With Discover Pass sales falling far short of projections this summer, Washington state’s Parks and Recreation Commission will decide this week whether to ask lawmakers for more money from the general fund than planned.
The Wenatchee World reported that Discover Pass revenues were about $4.7 million short of expectations for the months of June through September, said parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter. That means instead of asking for $18 million from the general fund for the 2013-2015 biennium, the commission will consider asking for $27.2 million, she said.
Two years ago, the legislature directed state parks to wean itself off of state funding, and try to survive on its own revenues from camping fees, boat launch passes and the newly created Discover Pass. In response, the agency reduced 66 park rangers to seasonal employees, and eliminated dozens of positions.
The $30 annual pass has now been required to park in a state park or on other state land for a year and a half, and the agency predicted sales would pick up this summer, Painter said.
“We expected a big surge in the summer, which happened the first year. But it leveled off this year,” she said.
The problem was in forecasting how much money the new pass would raise. “It’s all trying to establish trends based on something we haven’t done before,” she said.
Painter said there are so many factors that come into play that make it hard to predict how well sales will go. But, she said, in the long term, the agency hopes lawmakers will recognize that some of its funding should come from general funds, even if the majority of its revenue does not.
“We’re not going back to a big reliance on the general fund,” Painter said. “But we do think it is right to have all citizens paying something for this system that benefits the whole state.”
She said an August report by the agency found that no states have a park system that relies solely on revenues from user fees, although most do ask people to pay something to use them.
Despite the public’s resistance to buy the new pass, she said, the agency believes eventually, people will change their minds.
“For the first two or three years, some people are going to say, ‘I’m not paying that.’ But eventually, if they love their parks, some people are going to figure out what they are missing,” she said.
Washington state parks are looking for the “right mix” of funding for the parks system, including millions of state dollars, according to the Parks and Recreation Commission’s 2013-15 biennial budget proposal.
Portland’s The Oregonian reported that the commission submitted the proposal last week to the Washington Office of Financial Management (OFM), where it will be reviewed by analysts along with more than 140 other agency budgets. The OFM will submit recommendations to the governor in October and November, and has declined to comment on agency proposals prior to the release of the governor’s budget.
The Washington Legislature and Gov. Chris Gregoire have asked parks to wean off of state support for operations. Parks and Recreation has seen a reeducation of $42 million in state funding since 2007. To offset the reductions and create self-sustaining parks, Washington legislators created the Discover Pass, a $10 day-use or $30 annual vehicle fee. Using revenue from the Discover Pass, the governor asked parks to become independent of state dollars by 2013.
However, revenue from the Discover Pass came in at less than half of the projected $32 million for its first year.
“The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission believes that 100 percent self-support is not sustainable or desirable if State Parks is to satisfy its mission and meet statutory responsibilities,” the commission stated in the proposal.
The parks commission is seeking $18 million in state general fund support for operations and a $48 million capital budget. This would provide an achievable but not ideal level of funding, according to the proposal.
OFM Director Marty Brown previously told The Oregonian that it is doubtful parks will receive its full request.
In the face of dwindling tax funds and fee revenue far below expectations, Washington’s state parks have eliminated or reduced about a third of their full-time positions during the past four years, Portland’s The Oregonian reported.
Park visitors can see the impact of these cuts in decreased maintenance and staff presence, said Sandy Mealing, public information officer for Washington State Parks and Recreation. State parks receive an average of 40 million visitors annually.
Since 2008, they have decreased full-time staff positions from 595 to 395. The positions cut include construction and maintenance workers, managers and park rangers.
Parks need to keep rangers on duty during the peak season, from May to September, Mealing said. Of 189 ranger positions at more than 100 parks, 66 have been cut from full-time to five- or eight-month stints focused on these busy months.
“The problem with that is, when the parks are not as busy with visitors, that’s when our staff do maintenance,” Mealing said. “So now that we’ve had to reduce 66 of those positions, those positions won’t be available to help with maintenance during the off-season, which means things don’t get taken care of.”
At Battle Ground Lake State Park in Clark County, the decrease in maintenance level is noticeable for visitors, Park Manager Jim Presser said.
“We’re not able, especially here, to maintain the trails and trim back the branches on the 10 miles of trails,” he said.
Mealing said deferred maintenance on park land and structures can turn into more costly capital projects later.
Along with decreasing ranger hours, state parks also cut management positions. They eliminated the deputy director position and the entire regional level of management, which included three regional managers. Other money-saving measures ended programs such as No Child Left Inside, which funded outdoor education and recreation activities for youth.
“The system is not sustainable at the level we’re at,” Mealing said.
As Washington’s storied parks prepare for their 100th birthday next year, celebratory sentiment has been tempered by a fundamental question: What kind of system can this cash-strapped state afford?
With many areas of state government reeling from budget cuts, lawmakers in Olympia have given Washington’s parks system an unprecedented mandate to begin operating with no state funding beginning in 2013, the Seattle Times reported.
It has been a rough transition. The linchpin in this new model is the Discover Pass, a $30 annual or $10 daily parking permit needed to access parks and other state lands. But a year after taking effect, the pass has brought in less than half of the $32 million expected.
Now the parks system is under mounting pressure to move toward a new, self-funding model that can keep all its 117 parks and properties open.
“We are no longer getting a free check from the government,” said Don Hoch, director of state parks. “We are now in competition. We have to provide people a service (users) want to come for in order to pay our bills.”
The idea is for the park system to operate more like a business, but that is new ground for a system more accustomed to park preservation than collecting user data and mounting marketing campaigns.
Hoch said the parks must strike a delicate balance between attracting younger users with new amenities like Wi-Fi, developing new revenue streams and determining the level of service the parks can afford to offer.
“At no time in our 100-year history have we been in a position like this, where we have to make so many tough decisions,” said Hoch.
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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.
The state of Washington generated $2.9 million for state parks and other public recreation lands during the initial six weeks of Discover Pass sales, state agency chiefs announced Wednesday (Aug. 24).
Officials started requiring the $30 annual pass or $10 day-use pass to park vehicles at recreation lands statewide July 1. The state started selling the passes in June, the Issaquah Press reported.
Don Hoch, Washington State Parks director, said the revenue is crucial to state parks, because the agency must rely on user fees and donations to cover costs. In recent years, the Legislature slashed funding for agencies managing outdoor recreation lands and facilities.
“Public support has been essential as we begin this new program aimed at preserving public access to recreation lands,” he said in a statement. “It’s heartening that Washington citizens are willing to help keep their recreation lands open and operating. And we are optimistic that sales will continue to grow to help fund our state recreation lands.”
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Department of Natural Resources also receive a percentage of Discover Pass revenue.
The pass is required for state parks, as well as lands managed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources. Users must display the annual or day-use Discover Pass in vehicles’ front windshields or face a $99 fine.
Summer days spent lounging lakeside at Lake Sammamish State Park or hiking in Tiger Mountain State Forest start to cost most users a fee soon, according to a report in the Issaquah Press.
The cash-strapped state is preparing to debut the Discover Pass on July 1, just as the Fourth of July weekend causes attendance to swell at state parks and recreation lands. The permit is required to park vehicles at state recreation sites and other public lands.
The base price for the annual pass is $30, although consumers should expect to shell out another $5 in fees. The day-use pass — base price: $10 — carries $1.50 in additional fees.
State officials maintain the pass is necessary to avoid closing state parks and other sites to public access, but outdoors enthusiasts said the requirement serves a barrier to parkgoers, and could cause attendance to drop.
The pass is needed for parking access to 7 million acres of state recreation lands under the jurisdiction of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and state Department of Fish and Wildlife. State recreation lands include state parks, boat launches, heritage sites, wildlife and natural areas, campgrounds, trails and trailheads.
Users must display the annual or day-use Discover Pass in vehicles’ front windshields or face a $99 fine. Officials plan to emphasize public education and compliance during the upcoming holiday weekend.
The state is offering the Discover Pass online and at recreational license dealers across the Evergreen State. Still, rangers at Lake Sammamish State Park fielded dozens of phone calls in recent months about the pass. Selling the permit is also causing logistics hassles for park rangers.
Lake Sammamish State Park Ranger Tor Bjorklund said rangers hope to sell the passes at a booth near the park entrance, but because the staff is stretched thin and the booth needs repairs, parkgoers might need to trek off the beaten path to the office to purchase a Discover Pass.
The pass is meant to generate funding to offset deep cuts to land-management agencies and state parks. Officials need to raise about $60 million per year to compensate for the cuts.
“We are optimistic that people will support state parks and recreation lands and buy the Discover Pass,” State Parks Director Don Hoch said in a statement. “Without the pass to support state parks, we would have been closing park gates all over the state.”
“The Discover Pass will help ensure that the beautiful recreation lands of Washington state remain open for all to enjoy,” state Commissioner of Public Land Peter Goldmark said in a statement. “For less than the cost to take the family out to the movies, we can keep popular places such as Mount Si, Capitol State Forest and Ahtanum State Forest open.”
Revenue from pass sales is to be divided among the state land-management agencies: 84% to state parks, 8% to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and 8% to the Department of Natural Resources.
State lawmakers approved the Discover Pass in late April. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the legislation into law last month.