EDITORIAL | Joseph Whidbey is not a good fit for an RBA

Celebrate Whidbey Island — Joseph Whidbey State Park has been spared. It will not be included in a pilot project that would have opened up large portions of the park to private development, Washington State Parks officials recently confirmed.

This is great news, and something that residents from Clinton to Deception Pass should applaud. State parks’ funding woes, and its subsequent transition from a largely Legislative funded agency to one that’s mostly self supporting, no doubt presents an awesome challenge. The implementation of recreation business activities, i.e. development, in areas originally reserved or purchased by taxpayers for preservation, however, is a questionable remedy indeed. It’s certainly not right for Whidbey Island. The public made that position crystal clear, and state parks staff and decision makers got the message. Their decision to exclude the park was the right one.

A recreational business activity, or RBA, is a term for an initiative designed to generate revenue for a cash-strapped parks system. Simply put, they would permit private investors to build visitor amenities which would in turn contribute to agency coffers. Eleven parks were named as possible sites for the idea.

Had Joseph Whidbey been included in the final cut, 60 of the park’s total 206 acres could have been used for day-use and overnight facilities. The proposal outlined a plan for up to 50 cabins.

Recreational business activities, which would represent a fundamental shift in the direction of Washington State Parks if approved, are the result of an upended funding model. According to the agency’s website, the department’s total budget in the 2007-2009 biennium was $134.4 million. Of that, $94.5 million was allocated by the state Legislature from the general fund, and $39.9 million was earned revenue. In the 2013-2015 biennium, the total budget was $107 million with the Legislature pitching just $8.7 million while revenue earned amounted to $86.6 million. About $11.7 million came from the litter tax.

The 2015-2017 biennium shows a total budget of $133.5 million: $21.7 million from the general fund, $101.8 from revenue earned and $10 million from the litter tax.

This is quite a reversal, and not one that many islanders support. In April, a meeting concerning state parks’ plan to surplus portions of Possession Point State Park drew an enormous crowd. No one present voiced support for the plan. The same thing happened during a meeting about Joseph Whidbey and the proposal there.

Those turnouts may not represent the views of all Washingtonians, or even everyone in Island County, but it’s a strong endorsement of the high priority Whidbey residents place on state parks land. Clearly it’s something they value and are willing to spend money on.

Perhaps recreational business activities are a necessary evil, something that must happen to deal with today’s financial realities. We don’t think it is, but whatever the case, we applaud state parks staff for listening to its Whidbey constituents and taking Joseph Whidbey off the list.