Officials at Washington State Parks are observing the system's 100th birthday this year, but some have warned that, after over a decade of budget cuts, the state's 138 parks are in danger of serious operations reductions if the system's funding problems aren't solved.
According to parks officials, the costs of a large budget shortfall could include staff layoffs, visitor services cuts, less reliable law enforcement and maintenance delays.
The first in a series of bills by Sen. Kirk Pearson (R-39th District, Monroe) intended to address the enormous shortfall in parks funding, SB 5575 would use money raised by an existing litter tax to fund parks maintenance, and redirect some grant money used for acquiring and developing new land to instead be used for renovating current parks.
State funding for parks has decreased since 2003 from $60 million to $13 million in 2011, Pearson said last week at a public hearing before the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee. In addition the Discover Pass, a $30 annual or $10 daily permit to allow most vehicles onto state park lands, has brought in half as much money as expected when the program began in 2011 as an attempt to make up for the loss of state funding, he said.
The Discover Pass program was projected to bring in $67 million between 2011 and 2013. As of June 2012, it had earned about $15.7 million.
If passed, the bipartisan bill's changes would expire in June 2017. Pearson said he expects Discover Pass sales to have grown by then.
Of the bill's 11 sponsors, two are Democrats: Sens. Tim Sheldon (D-35th District, Potlach) and Rodney Tom (D-48th District, Medina).
The state litter-tax is applied to businesses that manufacture and sell products that are likely to end up as litter, such as packaged food, soft-drink bottles and cans, beer, wine and tobacco products. Half of the money raised by the 1971 tax is currently used for state litter-control programs, the rest for state and local recycling and waste-reduction programs. The tax, according to Pearson, is expected to bring in $20 million between now and 2015. The money, under his bill, would instead go toward running and renovating parks.
Tax would be 'robbing Peter to pay Paul'
Although many at her organization appreciate the need for more parks funding, Alia Griffing of the Washington Federation of State Employees said the litter-tax change would be "robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Using money from the litter-tax to fund state parks would undermine the purpose of the tax, said Suellen Mele of Zero Waste Washington, a non-profit corporation that advocates for the use of recyclable products. The impact on recycling programs could result in more dangerous waste going into landfills, stated Mele. Litter tax revenue also goes toward many important programs besides recycling, she noted, including technical assistance for businesses and youth jobs.
"The waste of resources has sizable impacts on the environment, on human health and the economy," said Mele.
The redirection of litter-tax funds would also cause a dramatic increase in roadside litter, Rico Baroga of the Washington State Department of Transportation told legislators. State litter-pickup programs such as those at Department of Ecology using youth and Department of Corrections using prisoners account for two-thirds of all highway litter collection, he added.
In order to sustain current levels of highway cleanliness, observed Baroga, WSDOT would have to use money that would otherwise go to constructing and maintaining roads to pick up the slack.
The second major change the bill would make is to mandate that all state-parks funding raised by the Washington Wildlife Recreation Program (WWRP) go to renovation and repair of park facilities. WWRP provides grants of up to $1 million for projects that benefit a wide range of natural-resource-related areas, one of which is state parks. Currently, WWRP park funding can be used for acquisition of new park land as well as developing current land.
Several groups came to the hearing to testify specifically against the WWRP funding changes, arguing that the bill would prevent important improvements to state parks that would bring more people and, in turn, create more revenue for parks.
The Olallie Trail project near North Bend, noted Glenn Glover of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, is an example of a project that would be harmed by restricting development of park lands.
"This trail would be an incredible asset," he said. "That leads to additional Discover Pass sales, and additional support to the community."
Beacon Rock Climbing Association member Adam Baylor predicted the bill would halt a current $250,000 proposed grant for Beacon Rock State Park east of Vancouver, Wash., a project that has already given a return on investment since it began in 2005.
"Wedding parties, school groups, fishermen, hikers and rock climbers have gathered there for events," he said.
Expanding the area to accommodate larger events, Baylor suggested, would increase Discover Pass sales.
Nature Conservancy representative Bill Robinson indicated that the long list of people who came to the hearing to oppose the bill shows that there is a lot of general interest in state parks. Most of those against the bill mentioned that they're in favor of funding state parks, but that this bill is not the right way to go about it.
Other groups testifying in opposition to the bill included Back Country Horsemen of Washington, the League of Women Voters, the Northwest Grocery Association, the Thurston County Health Department, the Washington Association of Neighborhood Stores, the Washington Food Industry Association, the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Commission.
The full text of the bill and a list of sponsors: