Ads in state parks explored

OLYMPIA — Washington officials are looking to end the ban on commercial advertising in state parks in hopes of generating much-needed dollars for the cash-strapped agency.

But visitors won’t be subjected to gaudy displays of corporate logos anytime soon, insist lawmakers and leaders of state parks.

House and Senate bills introduced this week aim to generate revenue from advertising on the agency website and expanded private investment in Washington’s 117 parks, plus a like number of undeveloped properties.

“You won’t be going to state parks and seeing billboards and neon signs,” Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, the sponsor of the House bill, said Friday in a hearing of the House Environment Committee.

The legislation also encourages partnerships with tribes, other public agencies or private entities for the management of parks and facilities if doing so “results in net benefits to the state.”

And it would make it easier for donations to the nonprofit State Parks Foundation to be spent directly on day-to-day operations and maintenance.

The bills moving through each chamber represent the most significant step toward commercialization and privatization in the system’s 100-year history.

But leaders of state parks insist they are taking one small step, and stopping.

“We are not talking about having private control of our state parks. We don’t want our parks to be commercialized,” said Daniel Farber, director of policy and governmental affairs for Washington State Parks and Recreation.

The legislation doesn’t specifically outlaw any type of commercial advertising in a park.

However, the Parks and Recreation Commission next week is expected to adopt a policy barring in-park advertising except as allowed under agreements with concessionaires.

“Theoretically we could,” Farber said of billboards and the like. “It ain’t going to happen. We wouldn’t do it. The commission wouldn’t do it. The public would become unglued.”

Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, expressed confidence Friday officials won’t permit advertising that offends visitors.

“I think if they do anything, it will be done very tastefully,” said Pearson, the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee. “The intention is to try to get more revenue into the parks system.”

Lawmakers want to stop using tax dollars to run Washington’s parks. They’ve slashed the agency’s allotment from the general fund from $94.5 million in the 2007-09 budget to $8.5 million in the current biennium. They also provided $11 million from the litter tax when it became clear that parks would close without it.

While parks commissioners have told lawmakers the agency can’t be weaned completely from the general fund, they’re morphing into an agency that might be able to eventually do so.

House Bill 2226 and Senate Bill 6034 embody the latest efforts at giving officials tools to bring in dollars from new sources.

Under the bills, the agency could start selling limited numbers and types of ads on its website and in printed materials later this year.

Also, the State Parks Foundation would be able to issue grants to organizations to carry out specific projects like trail maintenance rather than have to send money to the state agency, which decides how to spend it.

What might prove to be the most significant element of the legislation is new authorization for agreements with outside groups interested in managing a park or “stewarding and interpreting state parks’ scenic, natural, cultural and recreational resources.”

This could be as simple as preparing visual aids for site markers to caring for individual parks.

Any entity wanting to sign such an agreement must prove it has the funding and expertise to do so and must comply with performance measures established by the state.

Representatives of outdoor recreation groups, local parks and the largest union of state employees are supporting the bills.

So, too, is the state’s historic preservation officer, who said the changes could spur greater investment of private money in rehabilitation of park structures.

Allyson Brooks, director of the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, said a federal tax credit is available for those who pay for rehabbing historic buildings. But existing state law limits the ability of the state to strike deals with private firms to do the work, and the proposed bills would make it easier.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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