By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
OLYMPIA — Volunteerism at state parks in Washington is declining at a time when it is most needed to help the cash-strapped agency keep the gates open and sites operating.
Hours contributed by volunteers nose-dived in 2011 to their lowest level since 2005, a fall that coincided with budget cuts that forced layoffs of managers and employees involved in overseeing efforts to attract the unpaid helpers.
The amount of donated hours in 2011 was 40,186 fewer than in 2010 and 66,453 fewer than in 2009 when volunteerism in parks peaked, according to figures in a report compiled by the governor’s budget office.
“It’s significant. Forty thousand hours is a whole bunch of goodness gone away,” said state Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, chairman of the House capital budget committee and a frequent parks visitor.
State parks officials blame the drop on the troubled economy and mandated background checks for volunteers, not dissatisfaction with the facilities or disaffection with the Discovery Pass entrance fee program.
People expressed excitement about improving the parks at a recent batch of public meetings on the future of the system that turns 100 next year, said Virginia Painter, director of public affairs for the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission
“There seems to be a lot of excitement,” she said. “I’m not getting a sense that the interest of people is falling away.”
Budget cuts are partly to blame for the drop as those directly involved in coordinating volunteer outreach efforts lost their jobs or were assigned other tasks, she said.
Higher gas prices are another reason, she said. Specifically, there were fewer hosts at state parks last year. These volunteers are typically retirees who arrive in a recreational vehicle to spend several weeks in a park and, during their stay, carry out tasks such as picking up trash and assisting visitors.
“Any year that gas prices go up, volunteer hours are down,” Painter said.
Probably the single biggest discouragement is the requirement under a 2010 state law that volunteers working with money or with vulnerable populations such as children and seniors undergo a background check with fingerprinting.
“It is there for a good reason,” Painter said.
The state agency makes the applicants pay for their own checks.
Dunshee didn’t quibble with the law but wanted to know why the state agency isn’t picking up the tab. He said its leaders probably decided they couldn’t afford to do so with their strained budget.
Rather than second-guess them, he said the state needs to find the funds because the service of volunteers is a valuable asset for the public.
State parks tracks hours of volunteers in three categories: individuals, hosts and groups.
In 2011, they racked up a total of 271,260 hours, which worked out to the equivalent of 130 full-time employees, according to the report prepared by state parks officials.
A year earlier, the total was 311,446 hours. That drop of 40,186 hours added up to about 20 full-time workers.
Hours contributed by individuals alone dropped from 34,217 in 2010 to 25,328 last year. The last time the state recorded a level that low came in 2001, the report shows.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com.