Washington State Parks 'Not Sustainable'
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.
The wave of cuts stems from both a dramatic decrease in general fund tax dollars and a lack of income from user fees. In the 2007-09 biennium, state parks received and spent $94.3 million from Washington’s general fund. In the current biennium, that allotment fell to $17.2 million.
To make up for the lack of tax support, the state Legislature instated the Discover Pass in 2011. The pass costs $10 for day use of a state park or a $30 annual fee. The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission projected about $32 million in revenue from the Discover Pass for the fiscal year. However, the actual revenue amounts to less than half of what they hoped for, totaling $15.7 million.
Presser said the number of visitors at Battle Ground Lake State Park has been lower both this summer and last summer than it was in years prior to the Discover Pass. Many visitors are disappointed by the day use fee. Though campers are accustomed to overnight fees for sites and utilities, the day use fee is new to Washington.
“It went from zero to $10 basically overnight, and a lot of folks weren’t happy with that,” Presser said.
Mealing said it is normal for the public to object to new fees, and this fee resistance usually lasts for about three years. The Discover Pass has been in place for a little more than one year.
“Parks have never been free. They never have been, never will be,” Mealing said. “I think we owe it to the generations before us and the generations after us to be good stewards of these natural resources.”
The Parks and Recreation Commission is requesting $18 million in general fund tax support for the 2013-15 biennium, according to the commission’s report to the Washington State Office of Financial Management.