Self-Financing State Parks? Never Going to Work.

From Fox News comes the story that Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, facing a $3 billion state budget deficit, is considering zeroing out the budget for Washington state parks.

Washington State is considering being the first in the nation to make its Parks Department self-sustaining. As recently as 2009 the legislature appropriated $94 million toward the operating budget of the state’s 117 parks. But now, facing a $3 billion budget deficit, Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire is proposing cutting funding to zero.

Later in the story we read that Washington’s state park system receives 40 million visits annually. The first thought is that the arithmetic works out: 40 million visitors against a $94 million budget comes out to about $2.35 a head. Sounds infinitely reasonable. The problem is with those visitation statistics. Washington isn’t getting 40 million distinct individuals to drive through its park gates. They’re not recording 40 million visitors, but rather 40 million visits. The 40 million figure likely represents a much smaller group of people who frequently visit the parks. In reality, the math doesn’t add up unless you stick a small group of users with a hefty fee.

When I was studying for my master’s program I spent some time exploring funding alternatives for state parks. The debate Washington is having isn’t new by any means. I recall some years ago that Vermont made a serious effort to get its parks “off budget.” I’m not aware that they were successful, and in my research I discovered that it would be very difficult indeed to maintain parks as public resources without funding them from the general treasury. User fees, private foundation support, dedicated vehicle tags – all are nice ideas and may provide some level of additional support to the parks, but if the public wants a state park system, they are going to have to fund it out of their tax dollars, until someone comes along with a revolutionary new model for running state parks.

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