A new bill in the Washington legislature could make it free to visit the Nolte and Flaming Geyser state parks, as well as others around the state.
First introduced to lawmakers on Jan. 13, Senate Bill 1674 proposes eliminating the Discover Pass, which is necessary to visit Washington’s 124 state parks.
The Discover Pass was created in 2011 in order to “offset steep reductions in general tax support for parks and other recreation lands and facilities,” the Discover Pass website states.
On its history webpage, Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission states that financial problems started appearing in the 2000s, when annual attendance had increased 40 percent from the previous decade to 58 million. However, “funding for everyday operations has not kept pace with inflation while the increasing backlog of maintenance projects stands at more than $34 million.”
To rectify this increasing gap, lawmakers enacted a $5 parking fee in 2002. However, by 2006, the fee was made “voluntary,” as tax payers could opt out of donating the money when they renewed their car tabs.
Still, State Parks was receiving between 60 and 80 percent of its budget from the state’s general fund, and was allotted roughly $94 million in the 2007-09 budget, according to the August 2012 “State of State Parks” report.
Then the 2008 recession came, and the State Parks budget was put on the chopping block; general fund support fell to around $41.5 million in the 2009-2011 budget, $17 million in the 2011-2013 budget, and finally, to just $8.7 million in the 2013-2015 budget.
In 2011, the Seattle Times reported state officials were hoping the Discovery Pass would bring in $64 million in its first two years. Reality fell far short of expectations — in the first four months of its existence, from July 2011 to October 2011, the Discovery Pass brought in just over $7 million, and by that two year marker, only around $32 million was collected in total.
“When expected revenue did not materialize as anticipated, the agency found itself needing to take immediate cost-cutting actions,” reads an October 2013 report State Parks sent to the Office of Financial Management. This included reducing 66 of the 189 full-time, year-round ranger positions to just five- or eight-month seasonal positions; overall agency staffing went from 595 full time positions in 2008 to 395 in 2012. “To put it succinctly, State Parks is in an unsustainable financial situation.”
Things have improved since 2012, but whether it’s improved enough remains unclear.
According to Anna Gill, communications director with State Parks, Discover Pass revenue for the most recent fiscal year was around $25.4 million. This shows a trend of increased Discover Pass revenue since 2011, but it comes nowhere near pre-recession funding levels from the state’s general fund.
Still, State Parks appears to regard this as a success.
“Today, Discover Pass is one of the most reasonably priced – yet highest earning – passes of its kind in the country,” State Parks’ website reads.
State Park’s budget has also grown with rising revenues, from $150 million in the 2007-09 biennium to $182 million this biennium (2019-21).
“While this seems like a significant increase, the cost of business is going up; an example is the cost of employee compensation and benefits,” Gill said, adding that staffing has yet to completely recover — Sate Parks currently has roughly 60 less full-time employees this biennium than the agency’s peak levels in 2008.
People like free
While State Parks’ situation has improved since the recession, the sponsors of SB 1674, Sen. Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) and Sen. Randi Becker (R-Eatonville), believe it can be better by making the parks free to access.
“While the economic circumstances resulting from the great recession brought about user-based, pay-to-play policies, such as the Discover Pass, for access to state-owned lands, this policy has resulted in decreased attendance and usage of our state parks and lands,” the bill reads. “A decline by an average of seven million visits per year as compared to the visitation rates of the two years prior to the enactment of the discover pass.”
Average visitation in 2009 and 2010 was around 42.7 million, which dropped to just 37.3 million in 2011, and declined further to 32.4 million in 2014. Visitation has risen since then, returning to 37.4 million visitors in 2018.
Gill said the Discover Pass may have been one reason some people stopped visiting state parks, but certainly isn’t the only factor.
“If you think about the state of the economy across the country, people were struggling in more ways than just having to purchase a Discover Pass,” she said. “We can speculate, but we don’t have any clear data to show either way.”
Gill added that State Parks expects to break 40 million visitors in 2020.
Sen. Schoesler said he hopes doing away with the Discover Pass would add an additional million or so visitors to State Parks’ projections.
“I think a lot of our young adults that don’t have a lot of money, some of our lower-middle income families, will be more apt to use [state parks], which is good for tourism,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s really something for working families, young people getting started, of all ages and physical abilities to enjoy.”
Schoesler added that he’s confident there will be bipartisan agreement to match, or even exceed, the $25.4 million in Discovery Pass revenue from the state’s general fund.
“We’ve got $850 million in new revenue… shouldn’t the hardworking taxpayers of the state get something back from that share?” he continued. “That share won’t buy much in tax relief. I can’t think of another program that can positively affect more Washington residents… this buys a lot for those taxpayers.”
State Parks appears to agree with the plan to replace the Discover Pass with state general funds.
In 2016, the state legislature had State Parks work with the William D. Ruckelshaus Center to explore ways to “improve consistency, equity, and simplicity in recreational access fee systems while accounting for the fiscal health and stability of public land management,” the final 2017 report summary reads.
The partnership determined replacing the Discover Pass with a “source of broad-based public funding” would be the “most consistent and equitable fee system and stable funding,” for State Parks and other land management agencies like the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We support any stable, adequate, and predictable funding for our park system. That’s the most important thing for us,” Gill said. “We want to be able to run our parks, maintain them at the level the public wants and expects, so it’s really up to the legislature and the governor to decide how best to do that.”
While passing Senate Bill 1674 would replace the Discover Pass, you can still choose to donate to State Parks when you renew your car tabs.