State parks seeing neglect after years of cuts

SEATTLE — As Washington state’s park system enters its 100th year, budget cuts have begun to take a heavy toll.

Many of Washington’s 117 parks, 700 historic buildings and 33 heritage centers and interpretive sites are showing signs of neglect and even abandonment as a result of budget cuts, The Seattle Times reported Sunday.

At Lake Wenatchee State Park, extensive wreckage caused by winter storms is still lying on the ground, with another season about to open. At Flaming Geyser State Park in Auburn, a historic lodge renovated to host weddings — a hoped-for moneymaker for the parks — sits shuttered because there’s no money for needed water, sewer and electrical repairs.

In a park historic site near Chehalis, Washington’s first courthouse is rotting from the ground up. Outside Ellensburg, at Olmstead Place State Park, heirloom hand-stitched dresses are moth-eaten and the walls water-stained in one of the earliest farmsteads in Eastern Washington.

Reducing hours, cutting back maintenance, laying off rangers and reducing park programing only worsened a crisis for a system that was asking visitors to pay more to get less.

Since 2000, the state has shed 12 of its parks, reduced hours at others, and shifted 66 of its 189 full-time rangers to seasonal jobs. Starting in 2009, the state parks have reduced staffing from 595 full-time permanent employees to 395.

Former Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature in 2011 eliminated most direct state funding for the parks, money which had provided an average of 70 percent of the system’s general operating budget. Instead, the state bet that $30-a-year Discover Passes sold to visitors would pay the bills.

But revenue projections were off. Only about half of the projected money came in.

The amount of state funding has gone from 63 percent of the $149?million total budget in 2007-09 to 18 percent of the $121?million budget this biennium.

The percentage of the agency’s budget coming from user fees did soar from about 25 percent to more than 40 percent between 2000 and 2010.

This year, Gov. Jay Inslee and key state lawmakers say they are considering restoring some state tax dollars to fund the parks.

“The governor is a big supporter of state parks,” said David Postman, spokesman for the governor. He said Inslee’s coming budget proposal will reflect that. “Parks are struggling, and it gets worse every year. We can’t let that go on; it gets harder and harder to get them back where they need to be.”

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