If Senate Bill 6093 passes, state parks like Flaming Geyser, near Auburn along the Green River, would be free to visit. COURTESY PHOTO, State Parks

If Senate Bill 6093 passes, state parks like Flaming Geyser, near Auburn along the Green River, would be free to visit. COURTESY PHOTO, State Parks

New bill would make visiting state parks free

$30 Discover Pass would be eliminated

A new bill in the state Legislature could make it free to visit state parks.

First introduced to lawmakers on Jan. 13, Senate Bill 6093 proposes eliminating the Discover Pass (which costs $30 per year) and the various fees associated with visiting 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.

While State Parks’ situation has improved since the recession, the sponsors of the bill, 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.

Anna Gill, communications director with State Parks, 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.

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 said. “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 SB 6093 would replace the Discover Pass, you could still choose to donate to State Parks when you renew your car tabs.

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 taxpayers 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 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.

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,” the 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 — State Parks currently has roughly 60 less full-time employees this biennium than the agency’s peak levels in 2008.


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@kentreporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.kentreporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in Northwest

Assistant Secretary of Health Michele Roberts (left) and Health Secretary Umair Shah.
As COVID trends up again, state officials ‘strongly recommend’ masks

There are no new mandates in Washington. But “we really have an opportunity to get ahead of this.”

Attorneys for the United States debrief outside the U.S. District Court building in Seattle following the end of the Joann and Allan Thomas trial. Photo by Ray Miller-Still
Jury sides with DOJ in King County Drainage District 5 case

Enumclaw couple Allan and Joann Thomas found guilty of several charges

Screenshot of April 5 Edmonds City Council meeting. Inset (L-R): Mayor Mike Nelson and council members Kristiana Johnson, Will Chen, Neil Tibbott, Diane Buckshnis, Vivian Olson, Susan Paine and Laura Johnson. (City of Edmonds)
After long debate, Edmonds bans homeless people from living outside

The criminal law is unenforceable if no shelter is open within 35 miles. The City Council approved it over public outcry.

Judged by XII: A King County Local Dive podcast. The hands shown here belong to Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson, who has been charged with homicide in the 2019 death of Jesse Sarey.
JUDGED BY XII (Episode 4): Foster mom wants accountability in Auburn cop’s upcoming murder trial

Special podcast series explores Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson’s role in the death of Jesse Sarey.

Sound Publishing archives
Cannabis DUI challenge rejected by state Supreme Court

Everett man argued the law must be tossed because legal limit for THC is not supported by science.

File photo
Police investigating homicide after man found dead inside Federal Way home

Roommate arrested after victim’s family finds signs of violent assault, police say.

tsr
Driver in critical condition after semitruck rolls, catches fire in Auburn

A bystander, who is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, pulled the driver out of the flames, officials say.

Diane Renee Erdmann and Bernard Ross Hansen. Photos courtesy of FBI
FBI searching for Auburn couple convicted for fraud, skipped sentencing

The two were last seen leaving a Federal Way hotel on May 1.

Courtesy photo
Photo of Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson after he shot and killed Jesse Sarey on May 31, 2019.
Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson’s murder trial postponed again

The defense said it needs more time to gather evidence.

Judged by XII: A King County Local Dive podcast. The hands shown here belong to Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson, who has been charged with homicide in the 2019 death of Jesse Sarey.
JUDGED BY XII (Episode 3): Behind the decision to charge a police officer with murder | King County Local Dive

Special podcast series explores Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson’s role in the death of Jesse Sarey.

File photo.
Auburn Police officer charged with vehicular homicide, reckless driving, hit and run

Michael Smith allegedly crashed his Mercedes twice in less than 20 minutes in Seattle

File photo
Auburn Police officer under investigation for DUI, vehicular homicide

The officer, who was off-duty at the time, was arrested and taken to jail April 23.