Some states are shifting much of the costs of their park systems from all taxpayers to those who use the parks. For RVers, that translates to increased fees for camping or for just visiting a park.
This trend is the product of the Great Recession, which slashed state revenues, and of an aversion to general tax increases. The choice facing many states has been to shrink their park system, raise fees for park users or do both. Idaho has cut its general fund support of state parks to $1.4 million, an 80 percent reduction from past years, and established a new fee structure for visitors. California reduced its parks budget by $22 million this year and raised the price of an annual park pass from $125 to $195.
Oregon is one of the few states to escape major cutbacks, mostly because voters have directed a share of lottery revenue to state parks.
In Washington State, the goal has been to make the park system entirely self-supporting through user fees, donations and other means. Washington, which budgets in two-year cycles, reduced general fund allocations for parks from $98.3 million in fiscal 2007-09 to $17.1 million in 2011-13, with the goal of hitting zero in 2013-15.
But the goal won’t be met if the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission has its way. It has concluded that the state cannot operate its 117 parks without broad taxpayer support. It wants the state legislature to provide $18 million in general fund money for the 2013-15 budget cycle.
Washington has cut costs by transferring some state parks to local entities and by reducing its work force, turning many full-time jobs into seasonal work. Washington parks went from 595 full-time employees in 2008 to 395 this year.
Many of the most painful cuts have come in the past year. When he accepted an appointment to the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission a year ago, Mark O. Brown said, “It was like having been invited onto the Titanic.”
The cuts have made the park system leaner; any fat has certainly been trimmed away. Beyond that, how much damage the budget reductions are doing may not become apparent for a while.
This year the state eliminated 16 of its 76 year-round construction and maintenance jobs. Sixty-six of its 189 full-time ranger positions became seasonal. Rangers who couldn’t support themselves and their families with less than year-round work have quit, costing the state the value of their experience.
In a recent 28-page report on financing the park system, the Parks and Recreation Commission noted that many park facilities were built decades ago, and that neglecting their maintenance can increase costs in the long run.
In addition, the report noted that “basic operations like cleaning restrooms, mowing lawns and picking up litter have been reduced. Increased public complaints are a real and predictable effect.”
In an effort to make the parks self-funding, the state last year created the Discover Pass, which costs $30 a year. To drive a vehicle into a state park for the day, you need to buy the annual pass or pay $10. If a ranger finds a car parked without the pass, the ranger can issue a citation that carries a fine of $99.
There are a couple of problems with this system. First, many parks have several entrances and it is hard to catch everyone who enters without a Discover Pass. Second, you can park outside the park and walk in free. For these and other reasons, the Discover Pass is producing less than half its projected revenue, although attendance at state parks is down only about 12 percent since fees went into effect.
The Discover Pass is expected to raise $42.9 million for the upcoming two-year parks budget. People who are cited for not having a Discover Pass will pay fines that are expected to raise $1.2 million. Donations, including money collected from people who agree to a $5 state parks donation when they renew their vehicle licenses, should raise $16 million, and camping charges and other fees are projected to raise $45 million.
Add the hoped-for $18 million from the state general fund and the park system would have an operating budget of $123 million for two years to support a park system that draws up to 40 million visits a year.
Is that enough money?
Maybe not, but it’s probably all that is attainable now.
Commissioner Brown says, “We’re operating at an acceptable level, but not a desirable level.”
In the year he has been a commissioner, Brown said he has toured 35 parks and found a number of problems, including staffing that is sometimes stretched too thin for safety. He said there can be as many as 1,000 people at a Wenatchee state park when only one ranger is on duty.
Brown has been talking to state legislators to seek financial support for parks and has gotten reactions that are poles apart. One legislator told him that the commission just doesn’t get it, that general fund support for parks is a thing of the past. But another told him that the state should never have cut funding as drastically as it did.
In Brown’s view, the state has tried to make its parks too self-supporting too quickly. He thinks parks are so vital to the state that everyone should help pay part of the cost.
State parks care for 700 historic structures and 35 heritage sites of importance to the entire state, and the parks benefit the entire state’s economy by attracting visitors who spend money.
Another argument for general fund support is to make up for the loss of revenue because parks are legally required to offer free or reduced fees for admission and camping to the disabled, low-income seniors, public school groups and foster families.
Whether additional funding will materialize will depend on the legislature next year and whoever is elected governor this November. Both the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates have expressed willingness to consider use of general fund money for parks.
There are always people who say that government just needs to become more efficient and live within its means. And there are no doubt cases where public agencies fail to make the best use of the money they have. In California, the top park official had to resign recently because the state park system had stashed away as much as $54 million in undisclosed funds while threatening to close parks for lack of money. But that is the exceptional case.
In Washington, the state park system is stepping up its marketing program to attract more people to parks in order to gain more revenue from users. It is also looking to increase donations and get more volunteer help. Camping and other user fees can be raised only so far before you start pricing people out of the recreational experience.
Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Washington park system, and it would be a shame if the year passed without putting the parks on the path to sound financing not just for a year, but for the long term, and it’s hard to see how that can happen without asking everyone to help pay for it.
Write to Mike Ward, editor at RV Life magazine, 18717 76th Avenue West, Suite B, Lynnwood, WA 98037 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Find First Glance online at rvlife.com.Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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