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Officials look for more help from Discover Pass program

OLYMPIA — With a budget shortfall as a result of reduced support from the state's general fund, Washington State Parks has had to cut back on maintenance and staff hours.

But so far, no parks have been forced to close. Park officials are focusing on bringing in more revenue to fill the gap by promoting the Discover Pass program.

The pass, which is a user fee for vehicle entry into Washington public lands such as state parks and natural resource lands, brought in an average of $13 million a year during its first two years. But during the fiscal year ending in June 2013, the pass program brought in $16.8 million – an increase of about 29 percent.

The pass program was implemented in 2011 after state lawmakers slashed the budget for state parks. But even though the program has fallen short of the $27 million a year the state originally thought it would bring in, pass sales have become a critical element of the state parks budget.

"It is the thing that helped keep the parks open," said Washington State Parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter.

If the trend continues, pass revenue in its fourth year should be even stronger. But the parks system has a long way to go to make up for the more than 50 percent in cuts to its budget proportion from the general fund starting when the economy faltered in 2008.

The percentage of state parks’ budget that came from the state’s general fund dropped from more than 60 percent in 2007 to 30 percent in 2008. For the 2011-2013 biennium it was at 12 percent. That number continues to drop and is now at about 7 percent. Overall, state parks has seen a $26 million shortfall since 2009.

In his 2014 proposed supplemental budget, Gov. Jay Inslee suggested a 2.3 percent overall increase to the parks’ budget, or $2.9 million. But there’s still a notable gap.

The significant decrease has put maintenance and operations of many parks at risk, Painter said. They have reduced staff and made a lot of positions seasonal instead of year-round.

"It's not sustainable long term," she said.

The commission is looking for ways to increase revenue, such as increasing the number of places where people can purchase a Discover Pass.

Motorists can now purchase a Discover Pass when they renew their vehicle tabs and at pay stations that accept credit and debit cards located in various parks.

Discover Passes can be purchased as an annual or day pass. With all fees included, annual passes, which start from the day of purchase, are $35 and day passes come out to $11.50. They are required for all vehicles in all state parks and other natural-resource lands. But they are not required for people entering the park on foot.

Some park users think that the fee is more than reasonable.

“I’d pay more if I had to,” said Otto McElbain, a disabled veteran who has been homeless since last August. He camps in Washington state parks with his dog, “Big Boy” frequently. He has two passes, the Discover Pass and a five-year disability pass that gives him 50 percent off camping fees. The Discover Pass, however, is not needed for camping.

McElbain seems to be the exception to current attendance trends in parks throughout the state. Tom Pew, who manages several parks in the Olympia area, said he has noticed that attendance has been down since the implementation of the Discover Pass, but that they will likely see it go up as people “get used to it.”

While passes are required for park entry throughout the year, there are a few designated “free days” during which visitors can get in at no charge. These mostly coincide with state holidays, including the most recent, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Two free days were associated with this holiday, Jan. 19 and 20. Other free days at the parks include the birthday for Washington State Parks (March 19), Earth Day (April 22), National Get Outdoors Day (June 14) and some others.

Eighty-four percent of the revenue generated by Discover Pass sales goes to state parks. The Department of Fish and Wildlife and Department of Natural Resources split the remaining 16 percent.

There are several pieces of proposed legislation this year that aim to make changes to the Discover Pass program.

Some bills include discounts and reduced pass prices for disabled veterans and people who buy other recreational permits. One bill would waive the fine for not having a Discover Pass visible on a vehicle if that person can show they had one at the time the citation was given.

Currently, the fine for not having a Discover Pass visible on a vehicle in a state park is $99. Under current state law, a person who is cited but can prove within 15 days that they do have a current Discover Pass would pay a reduced fine of $59.

A new law that took effect in September 2013 allows state parks to sell Discover Passes (both annual and day) in bulk at a discount.

Painter said that while the size of the discount has not yet been determined, it allows the agency to sell passes in bulk to retailers for resale. Increasing the number of outlets where passes are sold makes it easier for people to purchase them, she said.

Rebecca Gourley is a reporter with the WNPA Olympia News Service.

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