Discover Pass sales rise, but parks still struggling

OLYMPIA — Sales of the Discover Pass are picking up and that is good news for the state’s financially strapped parks system.

Revenue collected in the second full year of sales was nearly $1 million higher than its inaugural year, a sign agency officials hope signals the public’s growing acceptance of a program created to offset the loss of state funding through budget cuts.

Overall, the state took in $32.4 million in the two-year budget cycle that ended June 30, according to a report prepared for the state Parks and Recreation Commission.

Of that total, $27.2 million went to state parks with the remainder divided evenly between the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Department of Fish and Wildlife. All three agencies manage state recreation lands, which require a Discover Pass for vehicle access.

Second-year sales generated almost $16.7 million for the three agencies compared to $15.7 million in the first year. State parks’ share of the additional dollars was $785,558.

“We’re pleased to see it increasing and we’re doing what we can to keep that going so we can keep parks and recreation sites open,” said Virginia Painter, spokeswoman for the parks department.

Purchases of the $30 annual pass rose in the second year while demand dropped for the $10 daily pass. (For many, the actual cost is higher when you add in transaction fees.)

There were 456,699 annual passes sold in the 12-month period June 30, according to state parks. That was up from 420,336 in the previous year. Park visitors bought 310,615 daily permits in the first year and 295,005 in the second.

Parks officials expected the number of passes sold would climb over time as people learn about the program and are provided more ways to buy them such as through vending machines in some parks. It also helped that the law was changed to allow one Discover Pass to be transferred between two vehicles.

While the uptick is a good sign, it is far from enough money to end the agency’s fiscal struggles.

“We’ve taken a lot of dramatic actions to keep our parks opens. Things are still thin,” Painter said. “We’re operating within our budget.”

The state Parks and Recreation Commission will be briefed on the Discover Pass and other budget matters at its meeting next week in Chelan.

Lawmakers approved the Discover Pass program in early 2011 and the state started selling one-day and annual passes in July.

A pass is required in motor vehicles accessing state parks and other state-managed recreation lands. Those with a valid camping permit do not need a pass and there are a number of exemptions including for disabled veterans, drivers with disabled parking placards, tribal members and qualified volunteers.

Under the law, state parks are to receive 84 percent of each dollar with the Department of Natural Resources and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife each getting 8 percent.

When the program started, lawmakers and agency officials projected sales would generate $54 million for state parks in its first two years.

Sales never took off and within months it became clear that original projection was far too lofty. Eventually lawmakers scaled it back to $26.6 million. The report going to commissioners next week shows the state actually did a little better than that with the $27.2 million tallied in the two-year period.

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

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