Sacajawea State Park sees drop in visitors

Sacajawea State Park in Pasco saw a 50 percent drop in visitors in the first month the state began requiring the new Discover Pass.

Park Ranger Reade Obern said he has had numerous conversations with park users about the pass. Some people are angry about it until they realize state parks no longer are supported by taxpayers, he said.

July was the first month the one-year $30 Discover Pass, or a one-day $10 parking fee, was required at state parks or public lands managed by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Department of Natural Resources.

The dip in park use wasn't unexpected. Obern said when Sacajawea charged parking fees in 2000, attendance dropped.

About 3,000 cars were counted in the Pasco park in July, which is how the state measures attendance, compared with 6,000 cars in July of last year, Obern said.

But the reduced count may not all be because of the pass requirement. Obern said park use had been down earlier this year by about 30 percent.

In the Tri-Cities, people have plenty of alternatives to Sacajawea, Obern said. And those other parks aren't charging parking fees.

But one of the things that sets the state park apart from the others is its location at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers, Obern said.

But on one recent August day, Sacajawea State Park practically was empty.

Park visitor Cecelia Swenson admitted her husband balked at paying the $10 fee when they only intended to stay for a half-hour. But because they were on vacation and he wanted to see the confluence of the rivers, the Duvall, Wash., resident decided to stay and pay.

State officials said the new fees are necessary to keep parks open.

Funding for the State Parks and Recreation Commission is coming from user-based fees instead ofgeneral tax dollars, Obern said. The fee is a way to make state parks become self-sufficient.

The state Legislature budgeted about $17 million for the 2011-13 biennium to help the commission as it transitions off the general fund, said Sandy Mealing, public information officer for the agency. But the department has been told it will need to cut about 10 percent, which likely means about $1.7 million.

During the 2009-11 biennium, $46 million, or 30 percent of state park's budget, came from the general fund, Mealing said.

The Discover Pass generated nearly $3 million in July, according to the state.

The state should consider offering something in between the yearlong or one-time parking passes, she said.

The Discover Passes are individual to each vehicle, and users need to write their license plate number on the pass, Mealing said. Those who have more than one vehicle need a pass for each vehicle.

Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, said he has received a lot of comments about the vehicle-specific nature of the pass. For families with more than one car, the cost climbs rapidly.

Haler, who voted against the pass, said he expected to see state park use plummet.

"I think people are discovering what a headache it is," he said.

On top of that, car tabs still have the $5 opt-out fee for state parks, which Haler said he also opposed.

"People are not going to pay an extra tax," he said.

Haler said he wants to get rid of the Discover Pass, but he is not sure that will happen with Democrats as the majority party. The state Legislature needs to prioritize spending, not add fees to parks.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, who voted for the pass, said it was a difficult decision, but adding a user fee was the only way to avoid raising taxes or making other more painful decisions, such as raising the cost of tuition or cutting school funding. He said he couldn't see making tuition higher while leaving park admission free.

With a user fee, people who don't go to parks aren't supporting the cost to operate them for regular park users, Schoesler said.

And, he added, "A user fee meant that none of the parks were closed."

Schoesler said senators already are talking about refining the pass. But he expects those changes will take a back seat as the state Legislature tackles the budget deficit.

In the meantime, Obern said the pass requirement has been waived for special events where the organizers had contracts before July, including Sacajawea Heritage Days, which runs from Sept. 23-25. But in the future, he expects the pass will be required for special events.

Discover Passes are available wherever hunting or fishing licenses are sold, at the parks themselves, by calling 866-320-9933, online at discoverpass.wa.gov and, starting in October, through car tab renewals.

-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com