EDITORIAL: Our state parks should be free

We should be past the point where every time the government implements a new fee or cuts a service, we object. In light of the economy, it’s inevitable. So last Friday’s announcement by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission that it plans to implement a $5 parking fee at state parks was not surprising.

Nevertheless, we object. The people of Washington State pay high taxes and the average person gets little to enjoy from the exercise. But we’ve always had the water access, beautiful scenery and other natural wonders the state parks provide. Now, access to nature will also carry a price tag.

It’s not official yet, but in all likelihood come January it will cost $5 to drive a car into Deception Pass State Park and spend some time there. The list of parks affected by the move has not yet been announced, but Deception Pass would have to be on it. It’s the state’s busiest park, and thus there’s more money to be made there than anywhere else. Income from parking fees at Whidbey Island’s other state parks would be a pittance by comparison.

Parks commissioners have tried for two years to implement a statewide parking fee. Last year, the Legislature allowed such fees only at six parks along the Columbia River. Revenue hasn’t matched projections, and attendance has dropped, but some money was produced. That’s all they needed to know before proceeding with widespread parking fees.

Commissioners adopted the state parks parking fees with regret. However, the system of 125 state parks has a backlog of $40 million in needed maintenance. Without more income, the commissioners reason, more parks will have to be closed. But not if the Legislature does its job.

The Legislature has cut state parks funding for two consecutive years, and 2003 revenues look even worse. No doubt more services will be eliminated, more fees increased and instigated, and at the end a tax increase will be needed.

But can’t they at least maintain free access to our state parks? It’s the one thing the average taxpayer can enjoy.

More than ever in 2003, the Legislature has to prioritize its spending. Cut programs that haven’t proven effective; stop the exorbitant growth in health care spending; let some non-violent criminals out of prison; reign in the bureaucracies; fully fund only essential state services.

But leave the state parks alone. For most of us, it’s the one enjoyable thing the state government provides. Charge for that, and beware of a voter backlash at the polls.

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