Parks no longer free

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
  • Thursday, June 23, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

CAMANO ISLAND — Matt Roodzant of Camano Island marked summer’s glorious first day earlier this week by bringing his two children and the family puppy to the park to picnic and play on the beach.

And it didn’t cost a dime to get in.

But should they return in just eight days, it will be

a different story as the era of free entry into Washington’s state parks will be over.

Starting July 1, Roodzant — and just about anyone else visiting a state park — will need to display a Discover Pass in their vehicle. It will be $10 for a day pass or $30 for a year of entries with the money going to keep Camano Island and 116 other state parks open.

“I understand how incredibly difficult it is to balance our state budget,” he said as his son and daughter rifled through pails of sea shells. “I think a user fee is probably a good option.

“Would I pay $10 for a day? Probably not,” he said. “Thirty dollars for a year? I don’t know if I would do that or not. I would consider that.”

Sommer Lisenby of Marysville already knows.

“No,” she said. “You’re going to drive so many people away.”

She and her husband, Charles, picnicked with their three children at a neighboring table. She said their outings to parks are a family routine that will change with the advent of an entrance fee.

“Parks are a big deal,” she said. “City parks seem to get better taken care of than county and state parks. If I had to pay to go to a park, I would put my money there and then have one fun-filled day with my kids and my husband.”

No one likes entrance fees — not even those in the state Legislature who devised the Discover Pass to bail out state parks and the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Together these agencies, which manage 7 million acres of recreation lands, got stripped of cash in the latest budget.

“I don’t know anybody that likes it,” said Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juans, who wrote the bill creating the Discover Pass. “I wish we didn’t have to do this, but the alternative was closing the parks.”

For state parks, three years of budget cuts have forced them to lay off staff, not hire rangers and even give away a couple parks to other agencies.

Snohomish County, for example, took control of Wenberg State Park in 2009 with similar-styled transfers taking place elsewhere in the state.

This year, legislators sliced $60 million from parks, essentially ending the flow of tax dollars to the department.

But they hope the pass will bring in $70 million in the next two years. Of that, $54 million would go to run state parks with the rest split evenly between the other two departments.

Under the program, most people must display a Discover Pass in their vehicle when spending the day in a state park or on recreation lands managed by one of the other departments.

Passes are not transferable from one vehicle to another. Not having a pass could result in a citation and $99 fine.

Tickets could be issued from the first day as the state law doesn’t prescribe a grace period. However, no one expects that to happen.

“There better not be,” Ranker said of ticketing. “I think that would be unacceptable.”

Virginia Painter, state parks spokeswoman, said the opening weekend “is going to be a time of education and an opportunity to encourage compliance.”

There’s a lot of educating already under way. Questions from the public are increasing, say employees of the agencies.

“People seem to know they need something though they aren’t sure exactly what,” said Deb Bell, a state parks customer service worker at Cama Beach State Park.

Confusion may be around for awhile until everyone figures out whether their mode of recreating triggers the need for a pass.

The general concept is if a person has already paid in some way to use the state parks or recreation sites, they don’t need to pay again by buying a Discover Pass.

For example, overnight campers in state parks won’t need one as their permit covers their vehicle access. But those planning an overnight stay at a DNR campground will need a pass because there’s no fee for those sites.

Similarly, those with an annual fishing or hunting license won’t need a pass when on Department of Fish and Wildlife-run area. But should they grab their fishing pole and head to a state park, they’ll need a Discover Pass because those DFW privileges don’t transfer.

Already one aspect of the program is inflaming emotions and has lawmakers talking about legislative remedies.

The issue is price. Fees tacked onto each pass sold online, by phone or at one of the nearly 600 retail outlets where fishing and hunting licenses are available will push the actual cost of a day pass to $11.50 and an annual pass to $35.

Lawmakers didn’t expect that, Ranker said. They thought the fees would be part of the final tab.

“We sold it to the public as $30. I believe it should be $30,” he said, adding he’s heard from lawmakers wanting to revisit the issue in 2012

Diana Bristow, 64, is a Texan whose spends summers living at Camano Island State Park. She and her husband Bob have been volunteers at the park for six years.

On Tuesday, as she picked up trash near the boat launch, she said she knows it’ll be a tough transition, but Washington residents are fortunate they haven’t had to pay all these years.

“It amazed me,” she said, noting it’s $60 a year for a pass to Texas parks. “This is change. It takes a little time for change to kick in. There may be a slack off (in attendance) but they’ll get used to it.”

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

Discover Pass

Starting July 1, most people must display a Discover Pass in their vehicle when going to a state park or most state-owned lands. It does not apply to people who have already paid for overnight camping or who have a hunting or fishing license.

People can buy the $10 day passes or $30 annual pass online, at any store that already sells hunting and fishing licenses or from state park staff. People can also purchase the passes by calling toll free 866-320-9933. Extra fees of $5 are charged by stores and for phone and online orders. To avoid the fee, you must buy the pass from a ranger or at state park offices.

For all the details, including exemptions, go to www.discoverpass.wa.gov.

Park visitors
Here is a list of the state parks in Snohomish and Island counties and the number of visitors to each one in 2010.

Snohomish County, Day Use, Total
• Wallace Falls, 173,044, 175,001
• Mount Pilchuck, N/A

Island County, Day Use, Total
• Camano Island, 183,288, 201,475
• Cama Beach, 291,591, 301,703
• Deception Pass 1,651,946 1,767,252
• Fort Casey, 673,431, 689,760
• Fort Ebey, 244,283, 266,947
• Joseph Whidbey, 103,178, 103,178
• South Whidbey, 191,214, 205,073

Directions to these and other state parks can be found at www.parks.wa.gov. People who visit land managed by the Department of Natural Resources or the Department of Fish and Wildlife will also need to purchase the Discover Pass.

The Department of Natural Resources manages thousands of acres of state trust lands in Snohomish County in which a Discover Pass will be required. The largest is the Morningstar Natural Resources Conservation Area which includes several campgrounds and the Reiter Foothills Forest.

To see a map of the DNR areas, go to http://tinyurl.com/3z893l3

The Department of Fish and Wildlife manages four tracts in Snohomish County within the Snoqualmie Wildlife Area. Those without annual hunting and fishing licenses will need a pass when accessing DFW lands at Corson Natural, Crescent Lake, Ebey Island and Spencer Island.
For more on these and other DFW lands go to http://tinyurl.com/6arbxud.

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