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Mandatory charge no walk in the park for recreation lovers
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
Carla Sparing avoids Lake Sammamish State Park nowadays.
It's fewer than three miles from her Issaquah home, but why fork over a $5 parking fee just to enjoy a stroll or a dip in the lake?
"I can go to other parks for free," she says.
Sparing's decision is echoed in a dramatic drop of 7 million visitors to state parks — a 16 percent decline in use — since the parking fee went into effect three years ago.
Nearly two-thirds of the 113 parks charging the fee reported attendance declines, ranging from 1 percent to 85 percent, from 2003 to 2004.
The numbers and related complaints from residents have triggered multiple legislative proposals to abolish the unpopular fee this session.
"It's an experiment that has failed, and we need to eliminate it," said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, who sponsored one of the bills. Similar bills have been introduced in the House and Senate.
The $5 fee was adopted when the state was facing a $3 billion budget shortfall and park closures were imminent. Now the state is enjoying a projected $1.4 billion state surplus.
"It's time to free our parks of something that was probably necessary [in the past] because of budget constraints," Kessler said.
But state parks officials worry that the legislation would kill the $5 fee without providing replacement funds. The fee has generated $11.5 million from January 2003 to December 2005.
The revenue has been used to keep threatened parks open and fund maintenance projects. About $3 million was used to hire 50 full-time employees to collect fees, clean bathrooms, and mow lawns, said spokeswoman Virginia Painter of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.
If legislation takes that revenue stream away, "the irony is that those very things — access and improvements — are at risk," Painter said.
The parks commission expected an "immediate attendance decrease" once the fee took effect, according to an official statement released in January regarding the proposed legislation. State parks officials believed it would take three to five years for attendance levels to recover. So far, declines have increased in 2004 compared to 2003. Data from 2005 will not be available until mid-year.
Other factors, from alcohol bans to road closures and forest fires, could also affect attendance at individual parks, say parks officials. At least one park didn't pass the fee on to visitors. At popular Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, the city, county and community pooled funds (about $150,000 so far) to pay the parking costs so visitors wouldn't be hit with the $5 charge. It worked. The park's visitor numbers went up from 2001 to 2004.
Washington State Parks:
King County's state parks reflect a mixed picture. At Lake Sammamish, for instance, visitors are down by 326,000 from 2001 to 2004. At Saint Edward State Park on Lake Washington in Kenmore, attendance rose 10 percent.
In Snohomish County, Wallace Falls and Wenberg state parks saw declines of 7.9 percent and 32.8 percent, respectively.
State parks officials warn there's no exact science to determining how many people use the parks. Attendance figures are "very rough" estimates based on car counts, Painter said, and don't factor in people who bike or walk into parks.
At most parks, small metal boxes called "iron rangers" are posted near parking lots. Drivers fill out an envelope, stuff $5 inside and park nearby with a receipt on their windshield. Rangers also stop cars to collect fees.
Legislators are trying to devise an alternative long-term funding source. Kessler, whose bill is scheduled for a public hearing today, would like to see a voluntary contribution option when drivers renew their license tabs. But to get through this year, she supports allocating $2.5 million from the state operating budget to help offset the loss of parking fees. Other lawmakers have proposed everything from using interest earned from a state investment fund to imposing fees on visiting professional athletes.
Nationwide, at least 38 states are charging similar fees for daytime visitors. Washington was the last Western state to do so, Painter said. The state allows waivers for families on welfare, some low-income seniors and the disabled.
Still, many patrons contend they shouldn't be "taxed twice."
As a matter of principle, Sparing now drives to smaller parks in Renton. When guests recently visited from overseas and suggested an outing to Lake Sammamish, she told them about the fee and they decided against going.
"It's not worth the $5 to go for an hour," Sparing said.
But some say they're happy to spend a little more to help state parks.
On a rainy afternoon this week, Judy Cole of Issaquah was out walking her Pomeranians, Lucy and Fala. Cole buys a $50 annual state park pass and uses the park every day. She doesn't see the fee as a burden.
"If anyone wants to enjoy the park, they should pay," she said. "The government doesn't have the money to spend on everything."
A native of Taiwan, Cole said parks such as Lake Sammamish are rare in her home country, which makes her appreciate the green, open spaces of Washington even more.
"Five dollars is nothing for this," she said, gesturing to the field around her.
Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546
News assistant Nyssa Rogers contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company