by Matt Rosenberg June 13th, 2012
The Great Recession hasn’t been kind to state parks systems. They’re unavoidably even farther up the line for state budget cuts than education and social services – which have also taken big hits. As the Los Angeles Times reports today, state parks systems across the country are struggling to keep the lights on. Washington State Parks are a case in point but the system’s leaders and supporters are working hard to map a brighter future. Recently, Washington state’s non-profit public affairs TV channel TVW took a closer look, on “Inside Olympia,” hosted by journalist Austin Jenkins. Jenkins began the segment by noting the steep decline in Washington state government support for the parks system, from 70 percent of the operating budget in the 2007-09 budget, to 30 percent for ‘09-’11, 12 percent for ‘11-’13 and a projected zero percent for 2013-2015. One-third of rangers are now working just five to eight months a year and many are looking elsewhere for full-time employment. There’s less staff presence overall, less law enforcement protection, and cuts to parks educational programs. No new closures. Yet. Underlying the funding challenges are lagging sales of the Discover Pass, which had been projected to bring in $53 million for 2011-13. That estimate has now been revised down to $33 million.
Washington State Parks face a tough choice on what to become. One approach: a much more commercially-oriented enterprise replete with partnerships and presences that could prove unpopular. Door Number Two: operate as a community non-profit corporation. Or, what parks backers hope for: recast the state parks system as a public asset with up to 30 percent of funding from the state and the rest from user fees, donations, grants and labor from partner organizations and volunteers. There are more details in a strategic alternatives document released by Washington State Parks.
Here’s the full “Inside Olympia” segment. Jenkins’ guests are Mike Sternbeck, Parks Operations Director for the state system; Public Affairs Director Virginia Painter; Washington State Parks Foundation Chair Peter Reid; and Stet Palmer, of Friends of Schafer and Lake Sylvia State Parks.