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Originally published August 1, 2012 at 4:39 PM | Page modified August 2, 2012 at 10:52 AM

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No state money for parks: what next?

Lawmakers have given Washington's parks system an unprecedented mandate: Begin operating with no state funding in 2013. But the linchpin of the plan, the Discover Pass parking permit, has brought in less than half the $32 million expected during the last year. Now the parks are under the gun to adapt.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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As Washington's storied parks prepare for their 100th birthday next year, celebratory sentiment has been tempered by a fundamental question: What kind of system can this cash-strapped state afford?

With many areas of state government reeling from budget cuts, lawmakers in Olympia have given Washington's parks system an unprecedented mandate to begin operating with no state funding beginning in 2013.

It has been a rough transition. The linchpin in this new model is the Discover Pass, a $30 annual or $10 daily parking permit needed to access parks and other state lands. But a year after taking effect, the pass has brought in less than half of the $32 million expected.

Now the parks system is under mounting pressure to move toward a new, self-funding model that can keep all its 117 parks and properties open.

"We are no longer getting a free check from the government," said Don Hoch, director of state parks. "We are now in competition. We have to provide people a service (users) want to come for in order to pay our bills."

The idea is for the park system to operate more like a business, but that is new ground for a system more accustomed to park preservation than collecting user data and mounting marketing campaigns.

Hoch said the parks must strike a delicate balance between attracting younger users with new amenities like Wi-Fi, developing new revenue streams and determining the level of service the parks can afford to offer.

"At no time in our 100-year history have we been in a position like this, where we have to make so many tough decisions," said Hoch.

Partnerships with local government or nonprofits will also play a role in the future of park management, according to a report released this week by the parks system.

For instance, at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, plans are moving forward to have a public development authority co-manage the park with the state and develop new programs and uses.

An education center is one idea, said Dave Robison, executive director of the public development authority.

The draft report offers a glimpse into changes that have already taken place and what could be in store, as the parks move toward being self-funded.

One idea is to charge variable rates for campgrounds based on demand. In theory, the price for securing a camping spot in sunny July could run more than a June weekend, with its more iffy weather. Or, for instance, a popular spot on a promontory might be more expensive than a viewless spot.

In recent years, the system has also made a big push to increase nonrecreational leases of land, including communication towers and utility lines, and brought in $1.1 million.

That new revenue isn't the silver bullet that will save the parks system, but Hoch said efforts like those add up. The report said the system is pursuing new revenue from energy development and gravel extraction and will ask the state to ease restrictions on advertising and sponsorships in parks.

However, the report states in sharp terms that the parks cannot become fully self-funded, calling the model "impractical" and "unachievable." No other state follows such a model, according to the report. Michigan, for instance, receives no funds from the state general fund but gets revenue from a dedicated oil tax as well as a large endowment.

Washington vehicle owners can donate $5 for parks when they renew their car tabs; so far donations beat projections.

The report, which will be discussed at the Aug. 9 meeting of the state Parks and Recreation Commission, makes a budget request for $18 million from the state for 2013-15 to act as a bridge while various business initiatives take effect.

During the current two-year budget cycle, the parks system is operating on a $148 million budget, with the state general fund paying roughly 12 percent.

It is unclear whether state lawmakers might change their minds about making parks self-funded.

State Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, said the Discover Pass has failed and said he would work with other legislators to restore funding to the parks system.

Though funding is tight in Olympia, he said support still could be rallied for parks.

"It is a high priority for voters," he said "For many people, those parks are the only outing that they can get, and we need to keep those (usage) costs as close to zero as we can."

The park system already took big hits in funding earlier this year. It shifted 66 of 189 rangers to seasonal employment, and administration has been cut drastically, the report said.

Taking these kinds of steps and planning for a future with limited or no state funds is prudent, said Brian Trusty, a management consultant with PROS Consulting of Indianapolis, who focuses on in planning for parks and recreation agencies.

Trusty has worked for California's and Arizona's park systems, among others, and is working with Fort Worden's public development authority to develop a business plan.

Parks have to get used to the "new normal" of state budgeting and not expect funding to return to levels before the economic downturn, he said.

The hard part, he said, will be striking a balance between what Washington residents want out of their parks and what they and their representatives are willing to pay for.

"This is a debate we see play out every day about how government works and how we spend government money," Trusty said. "What we are seeing is part of a long transition as a country, that we are having to relook at how government works because of what we are willing to pay."

Javier Panzar: 206-464-2253 or @jpanzar@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @jpanzar

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