Budget cuts shouldn't slash access to DNR trails

One of the targets of Gov. Chris Gregoire's all-cuts budget is a series of trails and campgrounds operated by the state Department of Natural Resources.

Depending on budget decisions in the state Legislature, Washington residents and out-of-state visitors could lose access to these recreational resources as soon as spring.

What a misfortune that would be.

In this economic recession, families are squeezing pennies. Many people don’t have the money to go on a pricey vacation or on a special outing such as a Mariners game. Families are looking for outings that don’t cost a lot of money — a trip to the beach, hiking on the slopes of Mount Rainier or spending a weekend at a campground instead of a hotel.

That’s why loss of public access to more than 20 DNR trail systems and campgrounds would be a loss to many families.

Included on the governor’s hit list are two popular recreation areas in South Sound — the McLane Creek Nature Trail in Capitol Forest and the Mima Mounds Interpretive Center near Littlerock. Also on the chopping block are popular DNR hiking trails in King County, including the Mount Si and Little Si trailheads, which receive combined visits from more than a half million people a year.

That’s a loss of a lot of recreation possibilities.

Outdoor recreation groups hope to save the trails and campgrounds by persuading lawmakers to find the $276,000 in general fund dollars necessary to keep them open. General-fund money pays for things such as trail maintenance; replacing vandalized and worn-out signs, picnic tables and corrals; pumping outhouses; and training volunteers.

In the short term, DNR would need an infusion of general-fund money to keep the trails and camps open.

Just over a quarter million dollars doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but every dollar counts as legislators are facing a $2.6 billion budget shortfall. Recreation programs will be measured against social programs for the poor and education needs in the K-12 system. Often in those comparisons, recreation opportunities are seen as a luxury, not a core public service, and therefore slip down several rungs on the funding ladder.

“Losing public access to these areas for even a season would be a disaster,” warned Jonathan Guzzo, advocacy director for the Washington Trails Association. “These are important family outdoor getaways close to urban areas.”

“Once the public sees this list of closures, they’ll demand action from their legislators,” predicted state Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, the chairman of the Senate’s Natural Resources, Oceans and Recreation Committee.

In the long run, DNR wants to turn to user fees to help finance its recreation programs.

User fees have the support of a diverse base of users. But day-use fees imposed by the state’s parks system cut into public use and were cancelled after an outcry.

Sometimes money isn’t the only answer to these challenges.

Take, for example, the effort under way between the state, Thurston County and the Nisqually Tribe to ensure the continued operation of Tolmie State Park, a 105-acre marine day-use park with 1,800 feet of saltwater shoreline on Puget Sound.

Tolmie, a forested park sandwiched between Johnson Point and the Nisqually River, offers a variety of beachside activities and an underwater park built by scuba divers.

During tight budget times, Tolmie has been repeatedly targeted for closure by state park officials.

As a result, the park’s future is very much in question.

County commissioners are working with the state to transfer ownership of the park to the county.

In turn, the county would enter into a contract with the Nisqually tribe to maintain and operate the park.

Thurston County Administrator Don Krupp said the plan is tentative, but all three jurisdictions are working to make it happen. Under the plan, Krupp said, Tolmie would continue to be available for use by the general public.

We like it. It’s a creative solution that doesn’t require an infusion of public tax dollars and would keep the park open for public use. The plan should be pursued with zeal.