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Washington Parks' Discover Pass: The $10 Picnic
Entry 5: March 8, 2012
"They took all the trees, put 'em in a tree museum / And they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em." -Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi"
March 30 Update: Governor Gregoire has signed a bill that makes the Discover Pass transferable between two vehicles and creates a $50 pass that's completely transferable. It turns out that Discover Pass revenues haven't met expectations. While this new policy helps, it still creates a headache for recreation clubs as the cost of a transferable pass is the same as buying five day-use passes. Many smaller clubs might not recoup the savings from a $50 pass. It seems that Washington won't violate the maxim that when government tries to solve a problem, it only gets worse. They could have simply eliminated the license-plate requirement on their annual pass and reduced the price of a day pass to $5. That would have done something useful.
On March 7, 2012 I visited Beacon Rock State Park in Washington to hike the Hamilton Mountain trail. I knew there was a new user fee for visitors because Washington is facing a budget shortfall and wanted park users to pay up. What shocked me was the $10 fee for one day's use at Washington parks. This is called the "Discover Pass." What it looks like to me is that Washington is doing everything it can to discourage people from using their state parks, especially if the visitors aren't wealthy. Perhaps a better name for this fee is the "Discourage Pass."
Most of us would say that there is a way out, and that is to buy an annual pass for a $30 fee. But $30 is a lot to pay for many families, especially in the tough economic times we're in. There's another gotcha to Washington's fee program that's hidden away: The pass is licensed to only one vehicle by the plate number. So if you have more than one car, choose carefully which one you get a pass for. If you carpool in another person's car, your pass will be invalid.
The "one pass per license plate" policy also creates a mess for recreation clubs, which used to buy annual passes for the club and share them for carpooling to the park. Now that can't be done unless the club knows the same vehicles will be driven on each trip. So it will be necessary to poll everyone at the start of the trip to find out who has a pass, who must drive their car in order to use it. Otherwise each car will need to be sure there's $10 available to buy a day pass at the park.
Why does all of this matter to my photography blog? I can afford the pass, but I am concerned that walling off nature so only the wealthy can afford it is a good way to make it irrelevant to the public. It sends a message that the parks don't matter, and we can't pay for them as a community resource so we'll just charge the visitors as much as can be gotten away with. Once the public gets used to life without parks, why have any land set aside at all? If I had my way, parks would be free to the public and paid for by taxes on polluters and developers. After all, people who impact nature should be asked to give something back. Given Washington's rubber-stamping of wind power projects without considering their impact, I'm not surprised to see them doing something as stupid as making a family pay $10 to visit a park to have a picnic.
Washington's policy of discouraging visitors is working. On March 24, a sunny Saturday, I drove by Rowland Lake park near Lyle and it was completely deserted at noon. So even the well-to-do are choosing to stay away. I've always seen lots of people at the lake when the weather is nice on a weekend. Nearby trailheads for Catherine Creek and Coyote Wall were filled to overflowing with parked cars. These are Forest Service sites and don't have any fees.
Another way to look at the problem is to ask how much it would take to pay for Washington's state parks through the gasoline tax. Washington used approximately 3.2 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel combined in 2010(1), and the state parks annual budget is approximately $74 million (2). If a gas/diesel tax were implemented of 2.2 cents per gallon, it would completely pay for the state parks budget. I'm not saying this is the best way to pay for parks, but a balanced funding approach that drew money from several sources such as gasoline, other pollutant taxes, land development, and the sales tax could easily pay for parks. A small user fee for park use could reduce the amount from other taxes, of course. Oregon's approach is much more sensible and funds parks partially through the state lottery, which is a voluntary choice on the part of those providing the money. Oregon's annual passes are not registered to a vehicle plate.
Wake up Washington, nature is important.