State Parks needs general tax funding to function

One hundred and two years ago a process began to assemble a collection of parks and trails, including hundreds of heritage, historical and cultural sites. This treasury has become today’s Washington State Parks and Recreation agency, one of the oldest and most diverse state parks systems in the nation.

This publicly owned system contributes directly to the health and well being of the citizens of our state. And the more than 32 million annual park visitors contribute significantly to the $21.6 billion outdoor recreation economy in our state, which is especially important in rural areas.

Several years ago a decision was made to make this parks and recreation system fully self supporting. Tax support was dramatically reduced, and the first-ever Discover Pass system mandated. This policy shift was done without adequate advance planning, time and resources and revenue projections were grossly overstated. As a result overall funding levels fell dramatically.

While all parks were kept open it came at a price. Park-level customer services, education and interpretive programs, routine maintenance and safety resources have all suffered noticeably, and the systems overall deferred maintenance backlog has grown to nearly one-half-billion dollars. And while earned revenue has risen to historic levels, covering over 70 percent of current operations, we’ve learned that 100 percent self-sufficiency is not possible or desirable.

In fact not one state parks system in the nation operates without some level of general tax support. Not one! And the National Park System receives 90 percent of its operating revenue from general federal tax support.

Currently your state legislators are deciding on funding levels for State Parks for the next two-year period. The governor and the House budgets provide parks with $29 million in state general-fund support, enough to buy back some of the recent cuts, and as the governor said, move us past a period of “duct tape and bailing wire.”

The Senate budget provides $5 million and would result in further reductions in services and significant additional staff cuts. If you agree with me that the cuts of recent years have gone too far and that your park system deserves some general tax support just like other important state programs, then please contact your legislators and tell them no more cuts to State Parks and urge them to support our parks with adequate overall funding.

Mark O. Brown of Lacey is a member of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.