Our state parks require voluntary investments

It looks as if a new fee for using state parks may be discouraging use of Sacajawea State Park in Pasco.

Visitors were down by 50 percent in July, the first month the annual $30 Discover Pass became a requirement in state parks.

And while that's a steep decline, the user fee can't be all to blame. Park use was already down by about 30 percent for the year, even before the fee went into effect.

Yes, $30 is a chunk of change many of us would rather not part with for something we used to get for free. No doubt, that charge is the cause of some of the continued decline in park use at Sacajawea.

But our state is in financial turmoil and something has got to give. We'd rather pay for parks than not have state parks at all, which was the likely alternative to the new fee.

The State Parks and Recreation Commission funding is now coming from user-based fees as parks move to self-sufficiency instead of dependence on general tax dollars.

To ease that transition, the Legislature budgeted $17 million for the biennium to help the commission as it weans itself off the general fund. A 10 percent cut in that budget is already looming.

In the previous budget, $46 million came from the general fund. That's about 30 percent of the budget for state parks.

In the first month it was in use, the Discover Pass brought in $3 million. Park users can either buy a $30 pass that's good for a full year of visits to state lands or pay $10 per visit. Obviously, the annual pass is the way to go if you enjoy the state's beautiful parks with any frequency.

Unfortunately, the pass is car specific. So park-loving families with more than one vehicle may find that a challenge. The Legislature is likely to fix that flaw when it meets next year.

Local lawmakers are divided on the Discover Pass. Some say it is a hassle and will diminish state park use, while others say it was a difficult choice to make but better than some of the alternatives.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said it would be hard to justify spending the money to keep park use free while cutting school funding.

And he says the Discover Fee is a more equitable approach to funding parks. Those who use the parks pay to support them. While those who don't won't be affected. And the user fee also meant that all the parks would stay open.

We've got some gems in Washington, including our own Sacajawea. The Discover Pass is your key to 7 million acres of state-managed recreation areas. That's access to a lot of land for $30.

The pass is needed at any state recreation lands managed by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Lest you think you'll skirt the system and skip paying the fee, the fine for not displaying the pass is $99. That's three-plus years' worth of Discover Passes.

For those of us who enjoy state parks and have a little cash to spare, the Discover Pass really is a bargain.

Sure, there's the mental hurdle of being charged to use public lands that could formerly be accessed for free. But we know there are some people who, either on principle or because of challenging economics, will opt out of using state parks, and that's a shame.

We'd encourage those who can afford it to buy a pass even if they're not sure how much they'll use it.

Keeping our state park lands open is a good thing even if this isn't your year to visit.