You'll pay at the parks

Daschunds Otto and Liesel love to romp along the beach at Deception Pass State Park, but their owner may be taking them for walks elsewhere after Jan. 1, when state parks start charging a day use fee.

Margaret Priebe of Camano Island and her son Kurt Priebe purposely brought the dogs out for a walk Thursday while it was still free.

“Tomorrow we’re going to Camano Island State Park,” she said. “I’ll be walking them in playfields after January 1.”

In an effort to raise funding lost from the state budget, the Washington State Parks Commission has decided to initiate a day use vehicle parking fee at all state parks, effective Jan. 1.

That means anyone stopping in state parks for more than a quick pit stop will have to pay $5 per vehicle. The parks commission hopes the fee will generate $5 million in revenues.

In addition to Deception Pass, other affected state parks on Whidbey Island would be Joseph Whidbey, Fort Ebey, Fort Casey and South Whidbey.

At Deception Pass, one of the state’s most popular parks, it includes parking at South Bridge, Rosario Beach, Bowman Bay, Pass Lake, Cornet Bay, East Cranberry Lake, North Beach, the amphitheater, and West Beach.

Deception Pass State Park Ranger Rick Blank realizes the new fee is not going to be popular, but said the only alternative is more park closures.

“We’re in dire straits financially,” he said. “Our mission is to keep the parks open.”

Six state parks were closed in the last year due to a lack of funding.

Blank noted the state park system has not had a major infusion of cash since a series of referendums in the 1970s.

“We’re $40 million behind on maintenance (state-wide),” Blank said.

Money raised by the day use fees will stay in the state park budget, Blank said.

The state parks commission’s priority is to spend the permit revenue on park maintenance and services, but given the budget crisis, revenues may be used just to keep the parks open instead.

Mark and Linda Gale of Coupeville were sorry to see it come to this, as they strolled the beach Thursday in Deception Pass State Park, but said they would probably buy an annual pass for $50.

“With I-695 and all the Tim Eyman stuff, people have got to realize there is no free lunch,” Mark Gale said. “You gotta pay for it.”

“It’s worth it if it will take care of the parks,” their daughter Megan Gale said.

Beverly Havens took advantage of the sunny weather Thursday to come to Deception Pass from Anacortes.

She said she uses the state parks system a lot, and hates to see a fee charged for the simple pleasure of walking on the beach.

“It’s one of the values of living in this area,” she said.

Margaret Priebe and her dogs will not be the only ones using the parks less in the new year. Blank expects park visitations to drop, perhaps by as much as half.

“It could take several years for attendance to recover,” he said, although he is optimistic about the program.

“Folks who use the parks a lot will get a pass,” he predicted.

Deception Pass records close to 3 million visits a year, 90 percent of them day users, Blank said.

Blank admitted it will not be easy to police every day user, especially at high-traffic areas such as the South Bridge parking lot, and in fact they won’t even try.

People will pay on an honor system at a number of “Iron Ranger” self-pay stations, or at entrance booths. Park staff will patrol looking for paid receipts displayed in the front window.

“The main thing is, the parks are in need of help,” Blank said. “We don’t want to just write a bunch of tickets. We’re looking for voluntary compliance.”

He also noted that if park staff issues a ticket, any money collected goes to the county, not the state parks.

Richard and Jude Gigot of Anacortes were enjoying a free day at the beach Thursday with their grandsons from Wisconsin.

Richard Gigot said he would like to see the state tax something less “family-friendly,” as a way of raising parks revenues, and was concerned that it would prohibit some people from taking family outings, such as to state park-owned beaches.

“It’s always our first destination when our family visits from out of town,” he said.

Blank said the day-use fee will replace the $5 boat launch fees currently charged, and school and educational groups can get an exemption by calling ahead. At this time there is no discount for seniors. There is no charge for users who walk, bike or take public transportation to a state park.

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