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Who doesn't like free? Legislature ponders Washington state park entry fees

Tom Banse
NW News Network
Palouse Falls would be one of many Washington State Parks to no longer charge a day use fee under a bill prepared for the 2020 legislature.

Remember back when it didn't cost anything to visit a state park for the day? A senior Republican in the Washington Legislature says the state's budget surplus should make it possible for park access to be free again.

Eastern Washington Sen. Mark Schoesler has drafted a bill to eliminate state park access and parking fees, effective this summer. The Senate minority leader said now is a good time to go back to free day use because the state can afford it.

"Every taxpayer from my little grandchildren to my 84-year-old father in a walker can and do use our state parks," Schoesler said in an interview Friday. "So it gives back something to every taxpayer that they can enjoy."

Schoesler needs support from the Democratic majority in the Washington Legislature to advance his idea. It's uncertain if he will get it.

"That would be nice," said House Appropriations Committee Chair Timm Ormsby, a Spokane Democrat, when asked about eliminating day-use fees. "State parks are wildly popular."

Ormsby said the proposal deserved "due consideration," but would have to compete with hundreds of other demands as lawmakers look to update the two-year state budget.

"Given the social challenges the state faces, I'd prioritize homelessness over parks," Ormsby told public radio.

Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, a Sequim Democrat and the chair of the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee, declined a request for comment Friday.

Schoesler proposes to keep the state parks budget whole by making up for lost revenues with money from the state's general operating budget, which currently has a surplus of more than half a billion dollars. Discover Pass sales generated about $25 million for the state in the most recent fiscal year.

All of the state park systems in the Pacific Northwest charge fees to visit popular, developed park units. In Washington state, the one-day parking fee is $10 and the annual Discover Pass costs $30. Oregon's day-use fee is $5 and the annual pass also costs $30. Idaho State Parks charges different rates for its annual park pass depending on residency. The annual pass costs $10 for Idahoans and $40 for out-of-state visitors.

Schoesler said public access to state parks was free for most of Washington's history. The state park system began systematically charging for vehicle parking and selling Discover Passes in 2011 at the direction of legislators who were scrimping for savings in the wake of the Great Recession.

Schoesler said after the parks starting charging for day use, attendance statewide declined by an average of seven million visits per year as compared to the rates of the two years prior.

"Even in good times there are families that struggle," Schoesler said. "Free use of parks could be great relief for older Americans on fixed pensions, young families starting out trying to get ahead. All stand to benefit from this. No other tax cut benefits as many taxpaying Washington residents."

Washington's 2020 legislative session begins on Monday and is scheduled to run for 60 days. The free access to state parks legislation has not been scheduled for a hearing yet.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.