State nets almost $3 million from Discover Pass sales

October 25, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Sales prompt backups, confusion at state park

The state-mandated Discover Pass generated $2.9 million for state parks and other public recreation lands since the state and retailers started offering the pass in June — crucial dollars for the cash-strapped agencies responsible for managing public lands.

Officials started requiring a $30 annual pass or a $10 day-use pass to park vehicles at recreation lands statewide July 1. The pass is mandatory for state parks, as well as lands managed by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Department of Natural Resources.

State public lands agencies need to generate about $60 million per year in sales to compensate for deep budget cuts. The agencies split the revenue — 84 percent for state parks and 8 percent apiece for the others.

Lake Sammamish State Park Manager Rich Benson said attendance at the lakefront park seemed lighter since the rangers started requiring the pass for admission, but unseasonable weather and other factors could also impact attendance.

By the numbers

The state collected almost $3 million from Discover Pass sales from late June to late August, including more than $200,000 from state parks near Issaquah.

Lake Sammamish State Park

  • 3,053 annual passes
  • $90,500 in revenue
  • 411,011 day-use passes
  • $109,871 in revenue
  • Rangers sell annual and day-use passes from a kiosk at the Northwest Sammamish Road park entrance.

Squak Mountain State Park

  • 142 day-use passes
  • $1,386 in revenue
  • Squak Mountain is not staffed on a regular basis; parkgoers buy passes on a self-pay system.

Some hunters need a Discover Pass

Some hunting seasons start in the fall, and state public-land managers are reminding the public about requirements related to the Discover Pass.

The vehicle-access pass is required for almost 7 million acres managed by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the state Department of Natural Resources, and Washington State Parks and Recreation.

Buying a state big-game or small-game hunting license, or a Western Washington pheasant permit, includes a free vehicle-access pass to the nearly 1 million acres managed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. See the accessible lands at http://wdfw.wa.gov/lands/ wildlife_areas.

The pass is not valid on Department of Natural Resources lands or in state parks.

Hunting is allowed on more 2 million acres managed by the Department of Natural Resources, but hunters need the Discover Pass to park on larger, developed blocks of state land. See the accessible lands at www.dnr.wa.gov/recreation.

Hunters do not need a Discover Pass to hunt on scattered small parcels of undeveloped land managed by the agency.

Hunting is prohibited on state park lands.

The annual pass costs $30 — or $35 including transaction and dealer fees if purchased at a license dealer, by phone or online — and a day-use pass costs $10, or $11.50 including fees. Learn more, or purchase a pass at the Discover Pass website, at www.discoverpass.wa.gov.

In October, the state Department of Licensing started offering vehicle owners the option to purchase the $30 Discover Pass as motorists renew vehicle tabs.

Combined, Lake Sammamish and Squak Mountain state parks generated $201,757 from Discover Pass sales between late June and late August, rangers said.

(Rangers oversee Lake Sammamish, Squak Mountain, Bridle Trails and Olallie state parks from a central office in Issaquah.)

Sales require a significant commitment from the staff at the parks office along Northwest Sammamish Road.

Come weekends, rangers man the booth at the park entrance and collect cash and checks from passless parkgoers. The effort is time-consuming, although a credit card terminal, a recent addition, should smooth the process.

“On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, pretty much all we’ve been doing is money,” Benson said.

Traffic backups occur at the entrance on sunny days as people flock to the park. Officials plan to redo the entryway to add a bypass lane for annual Discover Pass holders.

The rollout of the pass to the public also caused some hiccups at the boat launch on East Lake Sammamish Parkway Southeast. Some boaters did not realize a Discover Pass is required in addition to the $7 launch fee.

So, crews added signs to alert boaters to the updated fees and assigned a ranger to the launch to answer questions about the pass.

Benson said most parkgoers seem to appreciate the fee to maintain state parks, although rangers received some sharp remarks from people upset about the pass.

“Over a period of time, as people start realizing they have to pay here, some of them won’t even show up here anymore,” he said. “I’m hoping that’s not the case to a large degree.”

The effort to enforce the pass requirement is another demand, as rangers comb the parking lots at Lake Sammamish and Squak Mountain to search for violators.

“We’re not out there every minute of every day, but we go out a couple times a day and we put notices on their cars,” Benson said.

Enforcement differs on public lands

Parkgoers must display the pass in vehicles’ front windshields or risk a $99 penalty. The pass is nontransferable among vehicles — a sore spot for some outdoors enthusiasts and state legislators. In mid-August, a bipartisan group sent a letter to the public lands agencies to “refrain from enforcement of the current agency interpretation of nontransferability” until lawmakers can address the issue next year.

“We know there are some flaws,” state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said in a recent interview. Legislators “have to come back into town and fix it,” he added.

The combined effort to sell and enforce the Discover Pass means less time is available for Lake Sammamish and Squak Mountain rangers to complete projects throughout the parks.

“It’s something we take pretty seriously,” Benson said. “When we had the parking fees, we did the same thing. When we had the parking fees, none of us were real excited about parking fees, but it was something the agency felt was important, so we took it very seriously and went out there and did it. Honestly, it’s what none of us hired on to do.”

(Legislators instituted a $5 daily parking fee or $50 annual pass for state parks in 2003, but abandoned the program in 2006 after attendance declined.)

The enforcement approach differs on lands under Department of Natural Resources jurisdiction, such as Tiger Mountain State Forest near Issaquah.

“When we run into them out on our lands, and when folks are informed about it, they’re generally very positive and willing to purchase the pass and participate in the program,” said Bryan Flint, Department of Natural Resources communications and outreach director. “There are a few folks who are upset about it, but that’s to be expected.”

Only eight officers police all Department of Natural Resources-managed lands in Washington, so enforcement is all but impossible.

“We’ve been really focused on education and compliance, and less on enforcement,” Flint said. “If we have folks who are abusing the system, we’ll obviously take enforcement action.”

The agency does not count users in state forests and other public lands, so the impact of the pass on attendance is unknown.

State officials maintain the pass is necessary to avoid closing state parks and other sites to public access, but outdoors enthusiasts claim the requirement acts as a barrier to parkgoers.

“It’s a change, and change is difficult sometimes,” Goldmark said.

Washington State Parks Director Don Hoch said Discover Pass revenue is crucial. The agency must rely on user fees and donations to maintain parks after the Legislature slashed funding in recent years.

Rangers reduced maintenance at Squak Mountain State Park near Issaquah after state officials considered closing the park from July until 2013 as a cost-cutting measure.

“Public support has been essential as we begin this new program aimed at preserving public access to recreation lands,” Hoch said in a statement. “It’s heartening that Washington citizens are willing to help keep their recreation lands open and operating. And we are optimistic that sales will continue to grow to help fund our state recreation lands.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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