Agencies hope to simplify the maze of recreational fees

OLYMPIA — Representatives from state and federal agencies, outdoor recreation groups and nonprofits are working on plans that could change the way people pay to use public lands in Washington.

Research is being done on recreation fees and passes. A public survey is online now. The goal is to improve “consistency, equity, and simplicity” in fees while accounting for the cost of managing public lands. The work was ordered by the Legislature in 2016.

Nearly 40 percent of the state, totaling roughly 20 million acres, is owned by public agencies. That includes local, state and national parks, federal forests and natural resource lands.

Over the years, a variety of passes and fees have sprung up to offset gaps in state and federal funding as use of public lands increases.

There are more than 20 different passes and permits in Washington, according to research by the William D. Ruckelshaus Center. Ruckelshaus is an effort by Washington State University and the University of Washington to offer a neutral partner to help study state and regional issues.

Some recreation passes are state, others federal. There are daily and annual options. They often cover parking or entrance fees, and there may be additional requirements for activities, such as backcountry camping or hunting. Many have discounts for seniors, veterans or other groups.

The result is that people can easily become confused about what passes they need for the public lands they want to visit and the activities they want to participate in.

Two work groups, with help from the Ruckelshaus Center, have brainstormed four ideas for simplifying recreation fees. They have yet to make a formal recommendation.

The first possibility would be tweaks to the current system, such as consistent free days and discounts, and information about all passes available wherever any of the passes are sold.

The second option would use the state Discover Pass as a base and allow people to buy endorsements that could extend it to other public lands.

The third idea centers on a discounted Discover Pass as part of vehicle registration. Instead of opting in to buy a pass when drivers get their tabs, which is the current process, people would have to opt out if they don’t want a pass. They still could purchase one at full price later.

The fourth proposal would add a public lands fee to vehicle registration costs. Anyone with a Washington license plate would have their day-use fees covered on most state lands, but the fee wouldn’t be optional.

There’s also been discussion of combining state and federal passes, creating an information portal geared toward mobile devices, and establishing a fee board to set prices.

“The scenarios, and even the things that were identified as possible stand-alone components, they’re really just themes and ideas that are being explored right now,” project manager Molly Stenovec said. “They aren’t at a place where the group has started to vote or endorse any options.”

The plan is to gather feedback this summer, weigh the options this fall and present a recommendation from the work groups to state lawmakers by Dec. 1.

In Snohomish County, more than 900,000 of 1.4 million acres are public lands. The bulk of that is the wild, mountainous terrain outside of Darrington, Granite Falls or Index.

About 70 percent of the county’s public lands are federally owned, mostly U.S. Forest Service. That’s 642,847 acres, according to an inventory by the state Recreation and Conservation Office.

Another nearly 25 percent — more than 222,000 acres — are Department of Natural Resources. State parks have 4,637 acres, and roughly 42,000 acres belong to cities or the county.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

Public thoughts on public lands

An online survey asks about outdoor activities Washingtonians enjoy, passes they’ve purchased, passes they would like to see combined, and how much they’re willing to pay, among other questions. Participants can weigh in on options being considered for simplifying recreation fees. The survey is online at https://tinyurl.com/RecPassWA.

Questions or suggestions also can be emailed to molly.stenovec@wsu.edu.

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