Editorial: State parks spur economy

The Washington State Legislature rarely admits a mistake, but that’s what happened when the day use fee at state parks was repealed before adjournment last week. It was a bad idea to charge people $5 just for stopping at a state park for an hour or two. It alienated residents, drove millions away from the parks, and turned popular park employees into annoying meter minders.

Whidbey Islanders can rejoice that they can now visit our state parks without forking over $5 every time or paying a $50 annual fee. As a result, Deception Pass, Fort Ebey, Joseph Whidbey, Fort Casey, and South Whidbey state parks will regain their popularity with the local folks. Family picnics and strolls through the forest or along the beach will again be free, as they should be.

Now that the mistake has been remedied, the Legislature has the responsibility to fully fund operations and upkeep of our outstanding but well-worn system of state parks. According to the State Parks Web site, the budget last biennium was just over $95 million, of which 63 percent came from the state general fund. Money raised through camping and boat launch fees and other sources of revenue brought in 37 percent of the total.

The day use fee generated only about $2 million annually, so that shortfall should be easy to make up. But the park system is still facing a maintenance backlog estimated at $40 million, and capital facilities needs over ten years estimated at $300 million.

The Legislature must quit looking at state parks like our backyard playground that can be ignored, and instead see them as an economic generator for the entire state, particularly in less populated areas long on scenery but short on jobs and businesses. It is estimated that state parks generate more than $1 billion annually to the state economy.

Washington is now one of the few states where visitors can stop at a park and not pay for the privilege. That should attract tourism. “Pay nothing here,” would be a far more effective campaign slogan than Whidbey Island’s discarded “Do nothing here.”

State parks should be supported by a revenue source that’s adequate and dependable, and is based on revenue from tourists. One logical way is to calculate how much tourists spend each year, and designate a portion of their sales taxes to maintain the park system. That way our parks can finally keep pace with our booming population without being an undue financial burden to those who live here.

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