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Published: Monday, February 18, 2013, 2:36 p.m.

Despite tight budgets, we must save our state parks

There are a lot of contentious issues in Olympia right now, but there's one thing every senator and every representative can agree on: Washington's state parks are the collective crown jewel of this great state.
With 117 parks and recreation sites open to the public, Washington families don't have to go far to experience the scenic wonders and diverse natural beauty this state offers. Outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world flock to Washington to climb our mountains, swim in and boat on our rivers and lakes, and hike our trails. Our state is known as much for its wild, varied landscape as it is for apples and aerospace.
Meanwhile, the agency in charge of our state parks will celebrate its centennial this year bathed in red ink and weighed down by a backlog of repairs and renovations. Lawmakers who sing the praises of our state parks have also slashed funding for park operations and upkeep by more than 70 percent in the past decade, leaving our parks dependent on user fees that have fallen far short of initial projections and discouraged visitors.
That's not the way you celebrate the 100-year legacy of Washington's crown jewel. We need to do better.
In 2003 the Washington State Parks Commission identified $292 million worth of needed facility and infrastructure repairs. Most of this backlog was never addressed, despite goals to reduce it by half in time for the 2013 centennial.
We need to do better. We need to recognize that maintaining our park system is not only a public good, but a worthy investment in public health and in tourism.
I've proposed a two-part plan in the Senate that does just that. It would take reroute litter tax revenue that's already being collected into the park renewal and stewardship account; it would also redirect some of capital funds now used to acquire and develop park facilities to renovating and repairing existing facilities. Both of these provisions would expire in four years.
The litter tax is paid by retailers and manufacturers on products such as groceries, wine, and cigarettes. The tax generates about $20 million every two years, which would be enough to sustain operations for the state park system.
The money is meant to fund the Department of Ecology's litter control efforts, but in recent years, portions have been swept into the state's general fund to assist in closing budget deficits. Temporarily dedicating those funds to the park system would serve to help support operations while the parks work to become self-sustaining with Discover Pass sales and entry fees.
The second part of my proposal would address the colossal renovation backlog. It's difficult to understand how on one hand there isn't enough money to operate the parks and address the enormous maintenance to-do list, yet on the other hand there's money in the state capital projects budget to acquire and develop new state parks and facilities. Why spend money to develop parks if there isn't money to also maintain them properly? That simply doesn't make sense.
I know that moving these funds around won't make everyone happy. The Department of Ecology will have to shift its resources to account for the loss in revenue, and some park-related projects might be pushed back as we address the repairs that need to be fixed with the funds from the capital budget.
However, and especially when budgets are tight, the Legislature needs to set spending priorities. Right now, if we don't send those dollars to our state parks, we risk losing the parks and seriously damaging Washington's long legacy of outdoor recreation.
Without a doubt, maintaining that legacy by supporting a robust and dynamic park system should be a priority for all of us.
State Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, represents the 39th Legislative District.

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Jon Bauer, Opinion Editor: jbauer@heraldnet.com

Carol MacPherson, Editorial Writer: cmacpherson@heraldnet.com

Neal Pattison, Executive Editor: npattison@heraldnet.com

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