User fee is solid idea to save state parks

Unfortunately, not as many people as expected have paid the fee, but that could be because park usage isn't heavy until spring.

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The plan to save Washington state parks in the midst of the current budget crisis by charging a reasonable user fee is not going nearly as well as officials had hoped it would. Not enough folks are paying the fee.

State officials need to be patient, stay the course and make minor fixes to the process.

The basic plan is solid. The Legislature is trying to wean the 116 state parks off taxpayer subsidies and fund them with fees from users. Lawmakers had hoped to collect at least $64 million over the next two years by selling $30 yearly passes and $10 day passes.

Pass sales in the program's first three months -- July 1 to Sept. 30 -- were slow. The passes brought in $6.5 million, of which 84 percent went to parks with the rest going to the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Sales of $30 annual passes are the problem, not the $10 day-use passes, The Associated Press reported. More than 156,000 annual passes were sold in three months, but day passes beat projections with more than 185,000 sold.

One of the concerns is the $30 pass can't be transferred from car to car. The solution is simple. Offer a pass that can be transferred for $5 or $10 more

It's too early to panic. People won't start buying the annual passes and day passes until they start using the parks next spring.

Or, perhaps, the first year will be a big bust. But by the second year folks will realize the state is serious about the user fee and they will start paying because they will want to use the state parks.

We do see operation of the parks as a function of state government. Funding parks is a good use of tax dollars. However, the state is so pinched right now that full funding of parks is just not possible.

If not enough money is collected in the first year, it's possible some state parks might have to be closed, perhaps temporarily. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

The fee being assessed for using the parks is a bargain when considered with all of the other costs of enjoying nature -- from transportation to hiking gear to tents.

Still, $30 is $30. People want to hold on to their cash as long as possible, which might explain why sales of passes have slowed as we head into winter.

We are optimistic the user fee with some tinkering will serve to save the parks as state government struggles through the slow recovery from the Great Recession.

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