Washington state lawmakers are pioneering a plan for state parks to become self-sufficient. After being slowly weaned from millions of dollars in annual taxpayer assistance, Washington state parks will pay for their own maintenance and upkeep in 2013.
Path to Self-Sufficiency
Olympia lawmakers facing tight budget realities have been weaning the park system off general funds for years. In the 2007-09 budget, 66 percent, or roughly $99 million, of park dollars came from the general fund. In 2009-11, it was 30 percent, or an estimated $46 million. And in the current biennium, 2011-13, parks get 12 percent, or $17 million, of general funds.
By 2013, all the properties in the park system—117 developed parks, 33 heritage sites, and 700 historic buildings—will have to be 100 percent self-sufficient.
“This reflects the prioritization that lawmakers are making as they try to close budget shortfalls,” said Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center. “When you pit state parks against schools, … [state parks] are at the bottom.”
Park Officials Trim Costs
State park officials, for their part, have been trimming costs and innovating to become self-sufficient.
According to an Aug. 1 “State of the State Parks 2012” draft report from the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, the commission slashed dozens of non-vital full-time positions during the past year. For example, the commission redesignated 66 of the state’s 189 year-round ranger positions to seasonal positions lasting five or eight months per year. The re-designation will ensure full ranger coverage during peak visitor seasons while avoiding unnecessary staffing during slow seasons.
“The overall agency staffing mix shifted from 595 permanent full-time positions in 2008, to 395 in 2012 … and the agency has redirected staff toward revenue-generating activities,” the draft report explains.
Shortfalls Still ExistNot all the innovations have met expectations. In 2011 the parks system implemented the Discover Pass, giving purchasers access to all the properties for $30 per year. Holders of the Discover Pass have unrestricted access to developed parks as well as wildlife and natural areas, trails, and heritage sites. Discover Pass revenues are split among the State Parks and Recreation Commission, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the State Department of Natural Resources.
“The bulk goes to us, though,” said Sandy Mealing, spokesperson for the State Parks and Recreation Commission. “We get 85 percent, and Fish and Wildlife and Natural Resources each get 8 percent.”
However, the Discover Pass hasn’t generated as much revenue as expected.
“We had originally projected it would raise $64 million for this biennium,” Mealing said. “So far, this first year, it’s raised $15.6 million. That’s a huge gap.”
Problems with State Ownership
Mealing isn’t giving up hope of convincing legislators to restore annual funding for the state parks.
“We’re asking for $18 million right now,” she said. “We’re so dependent on the Discover Pass for earning revenues, and the last thing we want to do is close parks. But people are buying the pass, and if we don’t keep the parks open for them, people lose confidence in the pass and they’ll stop buying them. It’ll be a downhill spiral.”
The sought-after $18 million is just a short-term solution, however. Mealy didn’t see how the park system could find a way of operating fully independent of state funding.
“Not only is it not feasible,” she said, “it’s unheard of.”
Jay Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute (which publishes Environment & Climate News), pointed out such budget shortfalls argue against federal, state, and local governments continually buying up more land from private citizens.
“Governments typically set aside huge amounts of money each year to purchase more and more land from private citizens,” Lehr explained. “Forgetting for the moment that according to our Founding Fathers, We the People, rather than the government, should own our land, it makes no sense for government to keep buying up land when it cannot afford to take care of the land it already owns.”
Although Washington is the first state to make its parks self-sufficient, several others are investigating ways to follow Washington’s lead.
Cheryl Chumley ([email protected]) is a digital editor with The Washington Times’ newest endeavor, www.Times247.com.