News

State parks free for three more months

By PAT JENKINS

Mirror editor

On or shortly after the first day of 2003 is when most visitors to state parks in the Federal Way area and the rest of Washington may start realizing they have to pay to get in.

The state Parks and Recreation Commission this month approved a charge of $5 per vehicle to enter parks, effective Jan. 1. Money that's collected will be

spent on maintenance and improvements of the 260,000-acre park system and, if necessary, to cover basic operating costs in order to keep parks open in the face of the state's budget cuts, officials said.

Saltwater and Dash Point state parks, both near Federal Way and which together could generate as much as $1.6 million, are among the 125 parks that will begin charging the fee.

Chairwoman Cecilia Vogt said the commission "had no choice" other than

charging park visitors what amounts to an entrance fee. Currently, the only user-fees are for camping and facility rentals.

"All the state's citizens pay for parks now, but the funding is inadequate,"

Vogt said. "Asking those who use the parks to pay more is our best option."

Some people using Dash Point State Park Wednesday afternoon weren’t happy to hear about the new fee.

“It should be free. Our taxes should pay for the parks,” said Jamie Wezeman.

Public reaction to the fee has been limited and mixed so far, said Virginia Painter, a commission spokeswoman. She said some people have complained the fee is too high, while others have accepted it as a necessity.

More reaction is possible next year as visitors start being told to pay $5 to enter parks. Painter noted that the commission decision on the fee came as this year’s prime summer season at parks was winding down.

Washington has 125 state parks and several recreation programs, including boating, cross country skiing and snowmobiling. The park system began 89 years ago and now is one of the most heavily used but lowest-funded in the nation.

According to the commission, nearly 48 million people visit the parks each year, ranking the system fourth among the 50 states in day-use and 10th in overnight camping. Washington is 47th in state money spent per park visitor –– 78 cents, compared to the national average of $1.96, the commission said.

The new fees of $5 a day and $50 for an annual pass are for 2003, 2004 and 2005. After that, they could increase to $7 and $70, the commission decided.

The commission, which approved the fees Sept. 12, will meet this December to consider discounts for qualifying low-income seniors and families.

Six parks –– neither of them Saltwater or Dash Point –– have been charging

vehicle fees since last June. The fee system now will expand to all state

parks “with great reluctance but out of extreme necessity,” Vogt said.

At some of the parks charging the fee this year, about 40 percent of visitors initially refused to pay it. That percentage slowly shrunk, and the same experience is expected when the fee goes statewide, officials said.

Most park visitors are there for one day at a time. Of the approximately 48 million annual visits, about 3 million are campers. The rest are day-users, Painter said.

Campers won’t have to pay the vehicle fee because they pay a campsite fee, the commission decided. The daily rates include $15 for standard campsites and $21 for sites with utility hookups.

At Dash Point, an estimated 551,000 day-users were among the 586,843 visitors last year; the corresponding numbers at Saltwater were 501,000 and 515,556, according to the commission.

The estimated number of vehicles at Dash Point and Saltwater in 2001 were 157,000 and 175,000, respectively. Those totals would produce a combined $1.6 million under the new fee.

The faulty septic system at Dash Point State Park is an example of why the state needs more money to address park maintenance issues. To connect to a nearby sewer system would cost $1 million, said commission spokeswoman Thuy Luu-Beams.

Wezeman, who lives near the park and was walking dogs there Wednesday with Julie Ssell, has noticed the out-of-order toilets. Still, she wouldn’t want to pay to drive into the park, she said.

“That’s totally wrong,” Ssell agreed.

But Colin and Betsey Maxwell of Scotland, who were spending their next-to-last day of an American vacation camping at Dash Point, said they’d accept the fee if they were Washingtonians –– as long as it helped maintain the parks.

“As travelers, it wouldn’t affect us. But if we were residents, that’d be different,” Colin Maxwell said. He added that other states they’ve visited charge entrance fees to their parks.

Editor Pat Jenkins can be reached at 925-5565 and editor@fedwaymirror.com

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