December 6, 2012 | Vol. 116 -- No. 33

Washington parks are great, but Discover Pass is not

In Our Opinion

The state of Washington would like to have you shop with them this Christmas and buy a Discover Pass for all of your favorite outdoor enthusiasts.

The Discover Pass is Olympia’s way to try to raise the funds to support a myriad of state outdoor agencies. Having one allows you access to nearly 3 million acres of state recreation lands and avoid a nasty fine that approaches $100.

There are more than 100 state parks that are the best-known recipient of monies raised by either your $30 yearly or $10 daily passes. But there are also many little known attractions able to operate because of your purchase, a list that includes over 1,000 campgrounds, water access points, natural and wildlife areas.

The Discover Pass also includes access to nearly 2,000 miles of designated water and land recreation trails, such as the Columbia Plateau Trail system just outside Cheney.

But nobody wants to give a gift that is broken, the wrong size or color, or something the recipient will want to return to sender.

And that’s how we see the Discover Pass.

Perhaps it’s a neat gift idea for the outdoors person who has everything. But unfortunately it needs a makeover.

The two-size fits all mindset that developed the Discover Pass was not thinking outside the Olympia box where it was hatched. And that same thinking seems to penetrate the marketing and promotion of the pass, which is virtually nonexistent.

The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, Washington State Department of Natural Resources and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have collaborated since 2011 to push the pass.

The yearly pass is an absolute bargain for any true outdoors person. And so is the $10 daily fee, if used at the right park that is. Places like Sun Lakes, Deception Pass, Gardner Caves come to mind.

But $10 to stop for 30 minutes to hike down a couple hundred yards to see the spectacular sites of Riverside State Park’s Bowl and Pitcher and the rollicking Spokane River that roars through it is a non-starter. Declining park visits reflect that.

The Discover Pass concept, at least charging daily admission, has been tried before, about a decade ago. A 2004 Associated Press story reported during the time of a $5 daily fee, 38.7 million people visited state parks in 2003, down from nearly 48.9 million the year before, according to data from the Washington State Parks and Recreation Department.

Fast forward to today. Daily fees are doubled and places like Riverside State Park saw a loss of 81,000 visitors in the prime tourism months of July and August between 2011 and 2012 the first year of the reinstituted pass.

Revenues were nearly 50 percent below projections in 2012 and the outlooks cannot be seen as getting better as Washington’s state parks prepare to celebrate their centennial in 2013.

A bright spot, albeit small, is that people can also choose to donate to state parks when they renew licenses. Donations of $8 million exceeded the expected $5 million. Donations are not enough to offset the $16 million gap in actual revenue.

According to the Portland Oregonian, Washington state parks were set to request $18 million from the legislature for the next biennium – the two-year budget cycle state agencies operate under – $1 million more than they got last time but well down from the $75 million allocated in 2007-09.

Olympia needs different thinking. Like Oregon, perhaps, where certain parts of lottery sales fund their parks and daily fees are $5.

What the state does not need is more of the same-old-same-old. Or as Albert Einstein famously put it defining insanity as, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

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