Car tab fees may help keep state parks open

Early this year, the threat of closing the Wallace Falls trails near Gold Bar and other Washington state parks loomed as a possible way to deal with budget cuts.

A new system for car tab renewals that took effect in September appears to be making such temporary closures less likely.

State officials hope to generate an extra $28 million over the next two years.

While the initial results look promising, there’s still a long way to go.

“We’ll have to wait to see how it goes long-term,” state parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter said. “The budget direction we received from the Legislature and the governor was, ‘Keep the parks open, and watch the donation program to see what happens.’”

An extra $5 fee started appearing on vehicle registration renewals sent out in August. The donation is included in the final total, where it can look like a mandatory fee. Vehicle owners can opt out by checking a box and then subtracting five bucks from the amount sent in.

In September, state parks collected $1.4 million, including some donations that carried over from the previous two months. They typically raised about $50,000 per month under the old system, Painter said. To stay on track, they need to average about $1.25 million per month through mid-2011.

This revenue-raising idea emerged as the Legislature pared money from every state agency in order to close a $9 billion gap in the state’s two-year budget. State parks took a $52 million hit. One option for coping, since abandoned, was mothballing up to a third of the 121 parks throughout the Evergreen State.

Another part of the State Parks and Recreation Commission’s strategy was transferring parks to cities and counties.

So far, the only changeover has been Wenberg State Park on Lake Goodwin. Snohomish County took it over on July 16.

“By and large, everything went remarkably well,” county parks director Tom Teigen said. “Basically, the boat launch went well. The park was very heavily attended because it was a gorgeous summer.”

Reservations were steady throughout the summer, he said. On a few occasions, park rangers referred people there when camping facilities at Kayak Point and Flowing Lake county parks were full.

Things at Wenberg have mostly stayed the same under the county, other than a new $5 gate fee and a no-alcohol rule. Teigen said feedback has been positive.

“I had a few comments about the alcohol change, but nowhere near what I expected,” he said. “We had more young families that expressed thanks that there wasn’t going to be alcohol present.”

A dozen other state park transfers remain under discussion, said Painter, the state parks spokeswoman. The most advanced is Osoyoos Lake State Park near the Canadian border, which the parks commission has authorized Oroville to take over. A transfer could happen there in the next few months.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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