Why is the Legislature Trying to Kill Washington State Parks?
The Pacific Northwest–it’s the United States frontier still, populated in the continental imagination by lumberjacks, salmon fishermen, and prospectors readying for the Yukon. The weather is different. Visitors travel across the country to experience a temperate rain forest. Lately, the august New York Times has become fascinated by dam removal and silt.
But as the success of outdoor gear retailer REI, and its befleeced competitors, proves, residents too love to head for the hills…and lakes and rivers, forests and rocky beaches.
Yet, in 2013, as the Washington State Parks system celebrates its centennial, the Washington State Legislature hopes to have it off the books entirely. It’s an unprecedented refusal to fund a public good, which in this case is 117 parks, 33 heritage sites and interpretive centers, and more than 700 historic buildings on more than 120,000 acres, run by the fourth-oldest parks agency in the nation. During the 2007-09 biennium the state’s general fund provided about 66 percent of the parks budget; by 2011-13, that amount will have dropped to about twelve percent.
Even that isn’t enough: “With many areas of state government reeling from budget cuts, lawmakers in Olympia have given Washington’s parks system an unprecedented mandate to begin operating with no state funding beginning in 2013,” reports the Seattle Times.
Lawmakers have decided that the state parks need to act more like a business, and sustain themselves through demand for their services. Legislators frequently have strange ideas about business. No business would find it easy to reinvent themselves in just six years, which is the length of time that general fund support will have plummeted to $17 million from $100 million. A good way to kill a thriving business is to take away its primary revenue stream without letting it build a new one first.
This is setting aside the larger question of whether Washington residents have any problem with spending tax dollars on parks, to begin with. For the past hundred years, they haven’t. It’s not a question of personal usage: People like knowing the state parks are there. That’s true of the nation as a whole: “There is no state park system in the country that is self-supporting from fees and dedicated use taxes,” notes the State of State Parks 2012 draft report (pdf).
Times columnist Danny Westneat makes the point that people go to the wilderness as a reprieve from incessant capitalism, envisioning: “More cell towers. Solar arrays. Gravel extraction. Restaurants or breweries. Corporate naming rights. Utility lines. Higher fees, as well as pay amusements such as privately run zip lines and adventure parks.”
So does another Times (of New York) columnist Nicholas Kristof, who, with his daughter this summer, hiked 200 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail:
This trip, even more than most backpacking slogs, was a reminder that we humans are mere bricks in a vast natural cathedral. As we tumbled in snow pits, as rain fell on us, we mused that we’re not landlords of our planet, or even its prime tenants. We’re just guests.
In short, the wilderness humbled us, and that’s why it is indispensable.
The most public change so far has been the Discover Pass, a user fee that’s good for one day ($10) or one year ($30). As most of the state’s residents have been ignorant of the specifics of their legislators budget-axing, the fee has been greeted with pronounced animosity by people who believe their tax dollars already go to support the parks. The Discover Pass is a generic user fee; there are also fees for boat launching and mooring, Sno-Park use, camping, and holding weddings.
Legislators, as has been noted, have strange ideas about business: further evidence of this comes in the form of the projections for Discover Pass revenue upon its hasty, dead-of-the-night implementation (parks staff had five weeks to launch the program after the bill creating it was signed). It was supposed to raise $64 million between 2011 and 2013. A revised projection calls for $33 million. The service’s fee collection has been thwarted in part by the nature of state parks–many have no single entry point, which was never a problem when use was free, but now that means that it’s easy for people to evade a payment station.
Implementation still lags: A few weeks ago, I pulled into Saltwater State Park, south of Seattle, and the ranger asked if I’d like an annual Discovery Pass. I agreed, but the automated credit-card kiosk hadn’t been programmed for the annual version yet, so all I could buy was the $10 day pass, unless I had $30 in cash.
Additionally, the parks service has traded guaranteed funding for operations, which can be parceled out, for something much more volatile. June 2012′s persistent gray and rain kept visitors out of state parks but June’s bills still needed to be paid. The parks service has shifted to seasonal staffing, given rangers more ground to cover, and even transferred Wenberg, Osoyoos, Fort Okanogan, Fort Ward, and Fay Bainbridge state parks into other hands. Rangers who can’t make ends meet on seasonal pay have left the service, and maintenance is being deferred because it was mostly done during seasonal slow periods.
In conclusion, says the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, the “goal of 100 percent operational self-support is impractical. A stable and durable self-supporting state park system is unprecedented and, in the Commission’s view, unachievable.” So why go through this shock treatment? Why did this bill–with its draconian cuts–pass? Why would a majority in the Legislature think that a hundred years of stewardship wasn’t worth fighting for? Doing away with that because of a Great Recession is like clearcutting old growth because IKEA raised prices in its spring catalog.
These are the names of the Senators and Representatives that passed legislation so radical that it’s put the survival of the Washington State Parks, as it previously existed, at risk:
House Representatives Appleton, Billig, Blake, Carlyle, Clibborn, Cody, Darneille, Dickerson, Dunshee, Eddy, Finn, Fitzgibbon, Frockt, Goodman, Green, Haigh, Hasegawa, Hudgins, Hunt, Hunter, Hurst, Jinkins, Kagi, Kelley, Kenney, Kirby, Ladenburg, Liias, Lytton, Maxwell, McCoy, Miloscia, Moeller, Morris, Moscoso, Ormsby, Orwall, Pedersen, Pettigrew, Reykdal, Roberts, Rolfes, Ryu, Santos, Seaquist, Sells, Springer, Stanford, Sullivan, Takko, Tharinger, Upthegrove, Van De Wege, Wylie, and Mr. Speaker
Senators Becker, Brown, Carrell, Chase, Conway, Eide, Fain, Fraser, Hargrove, Harper, Hatfield, Haugen, Hewitt, Hill, Keiser, Kilmer, Kline, Kohl-Welles, Litzow, McAuliffe, Murray, Nelson, Prentice, Pridemore, Ranker, Regala, Rockefeller, Schoesler, Shin, Stevens, Swecker, Tom, and White