Fewer folks visit state parks Fee shoos away day patrons

JOSEPH TURNER; The News Tribune


Washington state parks could have at least 8 million fewer visitors this year, largely because of the parking fee that rangers started collecting statewide in January.

On the other hand, the drop-off in attendance could be as high as 23 million people.

No one knows precisely how many people were driven away by the $5 day-use fee that took effect Jan. 1, because counting park visitors appears to involve a lot of guesswork and faulty information.

"I can't give you a number," said Rex Derr, executive director of the state Parks and Recreation Commission. "We use a very complicated and diverse formula to collect attendance figures, and the variables we have used have always been challenging."

Challenging, yes. And sometimes flat-out wrong.

Parks officials estimated that 47 million people visited at least one of Washington's 98 parks in 2002. Visitor counts compiled through September show the state is on pace to host only 39 million visitors in 2003. That would be only a 17 percent decline, which would be viewed as good news - if only it were true.

But data collected for both years appear to be highly suspect.

For instance, park workers at Sun Lakes originally reported that the number of visits to the Central Washington park more than doubled in July 2003, compared with the previous July - 301,061 instead of 113,510. And that was despite the new $5 day-use fee.

It turns out the count was wrong. The car counter, a rubber-coated, hoselike device stretched across the road at the park entrance, counts every set of wheels. Most vehicles have two axles, but the worker forgot to divide by two, said parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter.

In other examples, workers at two South Sound parks reported 8,408 visitors to Jarrell Cove and 565 to Hartstine Island in July 2003. Both parks were listed as having no visitors in July 2002.

The rangers later said that was a mistake, Painter said.

The month-by-month report of park attendance obtained by The News Tribune is filled with similar errors and miscounts.

Faulty figures

In theory, each state park has a counter at its entrance that tabulates the number of axles that drive over it. Park workers take that number, divide by 2, then multiply that figure by 3.5. That assumes each vehicle has an average of 3.5 occupants, a standard assumption for parks, Painter said.

But many of the counters are broken, and park rangers often base their estimates on a few hours of observation and then extrapolate total park attendance for weeks or months, she said.

Painter said estimates of park visits are mainly an internal tool. They give commissioners and other park system employees a rough idea of how many people go to one park as compared to another. Parks officials then use that information to decide where to spend their resources.

But attendance figures also were used to figure out how much money the park system could make each year by imposing a day-use fee.

Derr, the park system's executive director, said the commission knew that attendance could suffer an immediate and dramatic drop after the fee went into effect.

"We talked to other park systems around the country, and they said when you go to a day-use fee you could have about a 50 percent drop in use of your parks because of the resistance and the anger and all that stuff," Derr said. Parks officials from other states said attendance would rebound within three years.

That warning was partially borne out in June 2002 when park rangers started collecting the $5 fee at six parks along the Columbia River Gorge. Attendance dropped by one-third, according to one estimate.

If a 50 percent decline is the norm, then the number of visitors could drop by some 23 million this year - assuming the estimates for 2002 were reasonably accurate.

The drop-off appears to be even worse at some Washington parks.

At Peace Arch Park in Blaine, only 19,520 people brought their vehicles into the park last July. That's a 66 percent decline from July 2002, when 56,980 people visited the park at the Canadian border.

Painter said the ranger at Peace Arch blames the dramatic decline on the $5 fee. People are still visiting the park, but they are parking their cars on city streets outside the park to avoid the fee.

Revenues falling short

Meanwhile, park officials aren't collecting as much money as they expected when they imposed the $5 day and $50 annual fee.

They expected to get $4 million the first year. But they've collected only $3.5 million through Oct. 31 and don't expect to sell many passes in the final two months of the year.

Derr said the park system gives free annual parking passes to volunteers who work at least 40 hours in state parks. It also gives free or discounted passes to disabled veterans, low-income people and other volunteers. That might account for the shortfall, he said.

Derr said he expects the park system to come within 80 percent to 90 percent of its day-use fee revenue projections by June 2005, and might reach its goal entirely. If system doesn't collect $10 million from day-use fees for the two-year period between July 1, 2003, and June 30, 2005, the Legislature won't give parks officials all the money they want for park improvements, Derr said.

That was the reason parks commissioners imposed the fee.

Derr acknowledged that estimates of park visitors are often faulty, but he said collection methods have improved since the early 1980s. Back then, rangers at parks in the San Juan Islands would go through campers' garbage to figure out how many people had visited each facility.

"That was before we asked them to take their garbage out with them," he said. "It was nigh on impossible to count them unless you have satellite infrared imagery."

Even so, parks commissioners are insisting on better information about how many people visit each park in the state, which hopefully will lead to more reliable information in the future, he said.


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