How to Avoid Closing Washington State Parks

Many thanks to the Washington Policy Center for publishing my legislative memo today on how to avoid the closure of dozens of Washington State parks, as Gov. Inslee has proposed if his tax increase package fails to advance. Here’s an excerpt:

The threat of closing five dozen state parks is yet another variation on the well-worn “Washington Monument Syndrome” tactic designed to threaten closure or disruption of popular amenities if tax increases are not approved.

Political tactics notwithstanding, Washington’s state parks system does indeed face significant funding challenges. General fund appropriations for parks have been on the decline for years, a predictable circumstance in a fiscal football game in which funding for major spending priorities like education, healthcare, public safety and public-sector retiree benefits increasingly crowds out funding for the “nice-to-have” amenities like state parks. The sooner that policymakers and citizens understand this basic trajectory is only going to intensify — and that new solutions are needed to sustain the “nice-to-have” items like state parks — the better.

Some in Washington have begun to realize this when it comes to parks. In recent years, the legislature pushed the Washington State Parks Commission to pursue financial self-sustainability, and to its credit, the agency has pursued a range of strategies that include staff reductions, an increasing reliance on user fees and non-recreational leases, and expanding revenue-generating assets within the parks themselves. While these actions have not solved the funding challenge, they have been useful steps to keep the parks system afloat.

Short-term infusions of funding along the lines proposed by the governor are not a sustainable financial strategy if the goal is to keep parks open and thriving for the long term. Washington, like many other states, is due for a major rethinking of the structure and operation of the parks system itself. […]

Though it may be anathema to the preconceived visions held by some parks advocates, there is indeed a strong role for private-sector and non-profit operators in the state parks. For example, nonprofits played a major role in taking over operations of dozens of California state parks to help avoid closure amid 2012’s budget battles, and many municipal parks, zoos and aquariums, including New York City’s famed Central Park, have long been operated by nonprofit conservancies and “friends” groups.

Read the whole thing here or here for more on the role of the for-profit sector in operating Evergreen State parks.