Sales of Discover Pass increasing, funding still short

OLYMPIA — Discover Pass sales are on the rise as residents and tourists grow accustomed to paying a fee to visit state parks and recreation lands.

But it is unlikely the program will ever generate enough money to cover the full cost of operating Washington’s public parks system as lawmakers envisioned when they created the user fee program in 2011.

Sales of one-day and annual passes rose from 744,000 in the first year to 921,000 in the fifth, according to a report provided to the Senate Natural Resources Committee last week. Revenue has gone from $15.7 million in the first full year to $21.3 million in the fifth — still millions of dollars below what lawmakers expected to bring in.

While initial results were “somewhat disappointing,” public support is “strong and growing,” Glenn Glover, recreational manager for the Department of Natural Resources, told the committee.

Residents and out-of-state visitors are more and more accepting of the Discover Pass for their year-round recreational needs, he said.

Washington now ranks fourth in the nation in terms of total park fee collections, trailing the more populous states of California, New York and Florida, according to the report.

Much of the legislative hearing focused on ongoing efforts to boost sales so users, rather than taxpayers, wind up paying the tab for running the system of 124 developed and undeveloped park sites.

This has been the goal since lawmakers slashed the parks department’s allotment from the state general fund in the 2009-11 budget and created the Discover Pass to make up the difference.

Revenue from sale of the daily $10 pass and annual $30 pass is shared between state parks, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife which collectively offer access to public recreation lands for camping, hiking, fishing and hunting. Parks receives 84 percent and the other two agencies split the rest.

Back in 2011, lawmakers figured to bring in $64 million for parks in that first biennium. It got less than half and it’s not come close to reaching that figure yet. The reasons vary, with the most notable being resistance from the public, some of whom simply avoided paying by parking outside a park and walking in.

“It was tough when you go from free to having to pay for something,” state parks director Don Hoch said after the hearing. “I don’t believe we’ll ever get to $64 million. The whole goal is to try to get to 100 percent self-sufficient.”

Officials of the three agencies explained to the Senate Natural Resources Committee some of the efforts they are making.

For example, a 2014 law ended the ban on commercial advertising in state parks and encouraged greater public-private partnerships to promote pass sales. There’s been progress on both fronts, they told committee members.

Newer rules allow one Discover Pass to be shared for up to two cars; initial rules did not allow such transferring. Placards, which were flimsy and hard to read when first introduced, have been redesigned. They are more durable and easier to see, which helps law enforcement officers checking to see if users are displaying valid passes.

Soon, the Discover Pass will be sold online through a state parks site. That will be in addition to sales through the existing WILD system operated by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Sen Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, the committee’s chairman, said he requested a progress report “because there’s always some complaint we’re getting about the program.”

“I think they’re trying to make it work because we’re putting a lot of pressure on them,” he said. “I think they’re doing fine.”

Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, suggested afterwards it might be time to rethink the program, describing the pass as “another regressive tax on low-income families.”

“We did this because we didn’t have the money. We have all this economic recovery so where is the tax revenue?” she said. “Why should we not ask all of our citizens to pay their fair share?”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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