Legislators consider $30 fee for public lands, state parks
April 5, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Proposed Discover Pass could stave off closures
Hikers, mountain bikers and other outdoors enthusiasts using Issaquah as a starting point for treks could face a $30 fee to use public lands and state parks come July.
Lawmakers proposed the statewide fee in order to inject funds into the cash-strapped agencies managing public forests, open spaces and recreation facilities. The legislation aims to create a yearlong pass, called the Discover Pass, to park at trailheads and other state-managed lands. For users uninterested in the annual parking pass, the legislation proposes a $10 day-use fee for using the lands. Otherwise, violators could face a ticket.
Though the Discover Pass proposal attracted broad support from outdoor recreation groups, Issaquah legislators remain concerned about the state imposing fees amid a tough economy.
If the Legislature decides against a recreation fee, agencies could close state lands to public access in order to cut costs. Squak Mountain State Park near Issaquah faces closure from July through 2013 as legislators scramble to patch a $5.1 billion hole in the 2011-13 budget.
David Kappler, Issaquah Alps Trails Club president and a former Issaquah councilman, said the Discover Pass could offer a short-term solution.
“I think some of the fees that they’re talking about are reasonable, at least for a while, until things improve,” he said. “I really don’t think that we want to get into that situation long term.”
Supporters said the per-vehicle pass could be easier to enforce, because officers can check parking areas for vehicle windshields displaying a Discover Pass, rather than tracking down users on trails.
Lauren Braden, Washington Trails Association communications and outreach director, said the legislation represents a compromise. The initial proposal offered late last year suggested a per-person fee, rather than the per-vehicle measure under consideration.
‘Our only choice is a fee or closure’
“Our priority was to have a fee structure that was sustainable but also reasonable, that would not be an enormous burden on hikers, and also that was enforceable,” she said.
In December, Gov. Chris Gregoire presented a plan to shift state parks from taxpayer-funded support to user fees. State natural resources agencies need to generate about $70 million in order to make up for the lack of state general fund dollars.
“We would like to see public lands, state lands paid for through the general fund and supported by the state, and in times where the state is dealing with more prosperity, we hope that that will happen,” Braden said. “But right now our only choice is a fee or closure, and at least if there’s a fee, people have that choice. If the lands are closed, they don’t have that choice.”
State Rep. Glenn Anderson said the prospect of a fee to use state recreation lands concerns some taxpayers, especially after the electorate rejected proposed taxes last November.
“People who do use public lands, whether it’s the parks or the hiking on some of the natural land, yes, they’ve said, ‘Yes, we’re willing to do that. We’re regular users.’ Then, on the other hand, you’ve got other people who may not use those facilities and those sites as much — if at all — that are broadly just against any tax or fee increase at this time,” he said. “Those significantly outnumber the number of those who are frequent users.”
The longtime lawmaker, a Fall City Republican, represents Issaquah and the 5th Legislative District. The sprawling district includes popular outdoor recreation spots, such as Lake Sammamish State Park, Mount Si Natural Resource Conservation Area and Tiger Mountain State Forest.
Users offer support for recreation fees
Bryan Flint, communications and outreach director for the state Department of Natural Resources, said many legislators seem receptive to the Discover Pass proposal. Senate Ways & Means Committee members discussed the legislation in hearings last week.
“The nature of the budget situation is forcing government to look at user fees and, so, people understand that,” he said.
The agency manages forestland and other public land throughout Washington, and must provide public access to most state lands — a daunting task due to the budget shortfall.
“We’ve had a lot of feedback from users on their desire not to see recreation areas close and a lot of support for keeping areas open,” Flint said.
Steve Justham, founder of the Dual Sport Dirt & Pavement Riding Club in North Bend, said the proposal carries benefits and disadvantages for club members.
“It’s going to take $30 a year out of their pockets, but it’s going to allow the DNR to build and maintain trails and continue what they’ve done,” he said.
Members ride in designated areas on public spaces, usually Department of Natural Resources areas or federal lands.
Kappler, the trails club president, said the state should roll back any fees after the economy improves.
In the meantime, “I’m concerned that this will develop some kind of negative feelings from some people toward the different agencies,” he said.
Si View Metropolitan Park District Director Travis Stombaugh said public-private partnerships and a separate effort to consolidate natural resources agencies represent other options to preserve public lands for recreation.
“Anyone hates to pay to use public property, so in that regard it’s somewhat disheartening,” he said. “However, it’s hard to recoup the costs.”
Legislators face difficult decision
But, Stombaugh added, maintenance and staffing must be continued at the facilities, because state parks and recreation on public lands act as economic engines for surrounding communities.
The decision legislators face is difficult, because the public is unaccustomed to paying fees for public recreation facilities, said Brit Kramer, executive director of the Washington Recreation & Park Association, a recreation advocacy group.
“We need our parks for a lot of different reasons — for the health of our people, for the conservation,” she added.
State Sen. Cheryl Pflug, the 5th District representative in the upper chamber and a Maple Valley Republican, said state agencies should focus on trimming costs elsewhere before asking users to pay a fee.
“First, we need to talk about all of the other commonsense measures we can do to ensure that we’re making good use of the existing dollars,” she said. “Then, we need to explore other options, like public-private partnerships.”
Anderson raised concerns about legislators steering Discover Pass funds from natural resources agencies to other uses.
“The Legislature has developed this nasty habit — in particular with budget deficits running rampant — fees will be charged for a purpose, and then once those fees start rolling in, then they’re diverted to fill the budget deficit,” he said. “That’s the big reservation on this.”
Issaquah legislators also raised concerns about the bureaucracy needed to manage the Discover Pass and associated funds.
“I think that there’s an awful lot of untapped potential here,” Pflug said. “It probably is not all going to get solved in this one year, but I want some reassurance that we are really on the right track.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.