A year in, fees are making an impact

Since last January some local users of state parks on Whidbey Island have parked along roadways and tramped the back trail to their favorite beach spot in an effort to circumvent the $5 day-use parking fee implemented last Jan. 1.

Others have forked over the fee or bought annual permits. Park rangers think people are accepting the fact that they have to now pay for what they used to enjoy free of charge.

“I think people accept it as a necessary alternative to keep the parks open,” Jack Hartt, new park manager at Deception Pass State Park, said last week.

Visitors to state parks on Whidbey Island should start to see the results of the $5 parking fee implemented to shore up the state parks budget and prevent parks from closing.

Fee collection successful here

Deception Pass State Park brought in $317,000 from January through October, of which $150,000 will go directly to improving facilities and services at the park, the most popular in the state. The rest will be disbursed in the next budget year.

Fort Casey collected $106,000 in the same period.

“Both have been amazing successes,” said Virginia Painter, public affairs administrator for Washington State Parks. “They worked hard and collected a lot of fees.”

On Jan. 1 the Washington State Parks system began charging parking fees at all state parks. Officials claimed it was necessary to fill a $10 million budget shortfall, and to catch up on $40 million in needed maintenance. The state legislature projected the fees would bring in $5 million in the first year.

Painter said they are “not far off that goal,” based on figures through October. Not far off in this case means $1.5 million, or 30 percent, short.

Since Jan. 1, 2003, the park system has collected $3.5 million of the anticipated $5 million.

Attendance at parks statewide dropped an estimated 30 to 40 percent after the fees were instigated, Painter said, but that was expected.

“That has happened nation-wide in parks that have started charging parking fees,” she said.

She gave an anecdotal example of the state parks along the Columbia River Gorge, which started charging fees in June 2002, six months before the rest of the system. Attendance figures there dropped too, but then rebounded.

Money goes to improvements

At Deception Pass, Hartt has mixed feelings about collecting $5 from every car that parks to enjoy the scenery.

“No one wants it (the fees), but folks recognize state parks need to be supported,” he said.

As a long-time park manager, he has seen parks closed due to lack of funding. But he’s also seen people shut out, who feel they can no longer afford to enjoy the state parks.

“I have compassion for both sides,” he said.

Hartt would like to see the money earned at Deception Pass used to improve the park for all visitors, so they feel they are getting something for their money. Plans are in the works for restoration and reconstruction projects at the park.

He suggested possibly reviving the toll booths at the park entrance and collecting fees there, so people can make a more personal contact. He expects to have spent more than $100,000 on park improvements by the time he puts out the welcome mat in June.

As for the rest of the money collected at Deception Pass, Hartt said how that will be disbursed is undecided, as it falls in the new budget biennium.

“I hope it will go to the maintenance backlog,” he said. “We have to spend revenue on the basics.”

At Fort Casey State Park, ranger Brett Bayne said attendance held strong through the summer. Traffic counters on the main roadway into the park logged 355,000 vehicles from July through September. That is about 5,000 more cars than in 2002, when parking was still free.

Bayne said the park has issued “thousands” of what he calls “attention slips,” reminding people to pay the fee. Up to now those have been free, but as of Jan. 1 those will come with an additional $5 fee. Failure to heed the attention slip will result in a $128 ticket. Bayne said the parks won’t get any of that money, as it is county fine and is handled through the county courts.

“Up to now it’s just been pretty educational,” Bayne said, as rangers have focused on reminding people that they need to pay to park.

What you pay, what you get

Washington State Parks would like people to know that people who feel they can’t afford to pay state park fees have options.

Every passholder who is eligible for a discount or free pass for camping or moorage also gets a free annual vehicle parking permit, the “Natural Investment Permit.” The exception is the off-season senior citizens pass, which is for camping and moorage only.

Discounts currently offered are:

Senior citizen limited income pass: Free; 50 percent discount on nightly camping or moorage.

Off-season senior citizen pass: $50. All seniors 62 and older are eligible. Free nightly camping or moorage.

Disability pass: Free to those meeting criteria. 50 percent discount on nightly camping, moorage fees and watercraft launch.

Disabled Veterans’ Lifetime pass: Free to those who qualify. Free nightly camping, moorage and watercraft launch.

New in 2004, $50 annual parking permits will be good for one year from date of purchase, rather than for the calendar year. They can be purchased at any ranger station.

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