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Originally published Friday, March 1, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Let’s fight to preserve Washington state’s park system

Funding for Washington State Parks has fallen precipitously in the past five years, writes guest columnist Mark O. Brown.

Special to The Seattle Times

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THE Washington state park system, one of the oldest, most diverse and most visited in the nation, turns 100 years old in March.

Ironically, in this landmark year of celebration, Washington State Parks face a financial challenge I can only describe as precarious. Without continued general tax support or new dedicated revenues, we will not be able to keep our 117 parks open.

In the past five years, the state’s general-fund support for parks has fallen precipitously.

The current situation started with a swift change in finances. In the budget cycle of 2007-2009, 70 percent of the operating budget came from the state general fund, with the remaining revenues from user fees for services such as camping. In 2009-2011, general-fund support was reduced to 35 percent, and a donation program intended make up the gap fell short of projections. In 2011-2013, general-fund support is down to 17 percent. The Discover Pass is essential for operations but generating only half of projected revenues.

As a result, our operating budget has gone from $133 million to $106 million in about four years — resulting in staffing, service and program cuts at every level. We’ve lost a third of our full-time employees, eliminated many management positions and shifted 64 of 189 full-time year-round ranger positions to seasonal. We’ve cut back on maintenance, security, interpretation, preservation, education and many traditional park programs.

The agency has done everything possible to keep parks open, knowing we must continue selling the Discover Pass to stay alive. Our remaining employees are working their hearts out.

We’re also changing our agency in major ways to focus on reducing costs, increasing revenues and collaborating more with friends and partners. We will continue to change and become more self-supporting, but we’ve been asked to do too much too soon.

In its August 2012 “State of State Parks” report to the Legislature on efforts to become self-supporting, the Washington State Parks commission concluded that total financial self-sufficiency is not possible in the short term and, in its opinion, not desirable in the long term.

The governor’s Office of Financial Management came to the same conclusion. In then-Gov. Chris Gregoire’s new revenue budget, State Parks would receive about $19 million from the state’s general fund.

While we applaud her recognition of our need, she did not go far enough. At Gregoire’s proposed level, parks would remain open and operating at a minimal level, while service and maintenance would continue to decline. The commission has asked for more so we can resume maintenance and activities that save on future costs — and to ensure greater stability.

At funding levels the governor proposed, state parks will have to close parks and campgrounds. With the Discover Pass as a core revenue producer, closure sets in motion a dangerous downward spiral with an unknown end. Closing parks to save costs reduces revenue, requiring more closures and more losses.

We must avoid this fiscal spiral. Our wonderful state park system may not survive it.

We must preserve a system of 117 developed parks, trails, recreation programs, 35 heritage sites and interpretive centers and 700 historic structures — all of which generate about 40 million visits a year and bring in $30 million in annual state tax receipts.

State parks also contribute to our health and quality of life. We hope that with the help of our friends, supporters and lawmakers we can keep that good stuff going and make 2013 the year we recommit to 100 more years of a magnificent state park system.

Mark O. Brown lives in Lacey and is a member of the Washington State Parks Commission. He can be reached at mark.brown@parks.wa.gov

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