Parks losing people


Sports editor

State park officials knew a downturn was coming. So when recently released numbers revealed daytime visits to parks took a substantial fall over the past year, nobody was surprised.

“We did a lot of research and we were expecting a 30 to 40 percent reduction in attendance the first year,” said Virginia Painter, spokeswoman for the state Parks Commission. “And, as near as we can tell, about 30 percent is true for a lot of the parks.”

Officials are crediting the drop to the $5 per visit, or $50 a year, vehicle permit required to use the 120 state parks during the day. The commission began charging the fee in January 2003.

Visits to the Federal Way area’s two state parks — Dash Point and Saltwater — both fell during 2003, but took a more drastic turn at Dash Point.

Attendance at Dash Point, from January through September, dropped from 655,409 visitors in the same period in 2002 and 531,580 in 2001 to 317,257 last year.

At Saltwater, the reported attendance drop was less severe: 351,445 people visited the park from January through September last year, compared to 406,761 in 2002 and 483,087 in 2001.

Painter anticipates attendance numbers at places like Dash Point and Saltwater will get back to “normal” in two to three years, when people become more accustomed to paying the day-use fee.

“There is always going to be some sticker shock when you implement something like this,” she said.

Charging a fee for day-use has been in the works by the Parks Commission for approximately 10 years, but the Legislature and governor’s office nixed several proposals until 2002, when talk about closing some state parks due to a lack of money started surfacing.

“Our operational budget has remained flat for about 10 years,” Painter said. “But our costs and obligations kept going up, and that affected the whole (state parks) system. We cut and cut and cut services, and we now have more things to pay for and don’t have the money to pay for it.”

Now, all the money collected from the $5-per-day fees goes into the Parks Recreation Stewardship Fund (PRSA), and the commission has been given full spending authority.

Expenses covered through the PRSA include park rangers and seasonal employees and the various things they do, from managing parks to law enforcement, interpretive programs, stewardship efforts, taking care of grounds and historic buildings, monitoring sewer and water systems, campground and other maintenance, public information, equipment and planning and construction.

“The Legislature wanted us to think more like a business and act more like a business,” Painter said. “We had 97 percent of our visitors coming during the day and only 3 percent camping overnight (who were already paying for camping sites). We wanted to shift some of the fee load to a bulk of the visitors.”

When the 2003-05 biennium state budget was passed, it projected the new daytime fees would put $10 million into the PRSA. According to Painter, $3.5 million was collected through November 2003.

“I think we are going to come pretty close to ($10 million),” she said.

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565,

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