Budget squeeze threatens recreation

23 ON LIST: Park officials may shut 13 leased sites, 10 state-owned properties

The News Tribune

Olympia, WA - 3/9/02

State parks officials are looking to close as many as 23 parks and raise camping and boat launch fees to deal with cuts the Legislature is likely to make to their budget.

But they have no plans to impose a new $5 visitor parking fee at any state recreational area, as they have threatened to do in the past - at least not this year.

Parks that are candidates for closure include Kopachuck on the Gig Harbor Peninsula, Tolmie in Thurston County, Lake Cushman in Mason County and Nolte near Enumclaw.

The number of closures depends on how deep the final cuts are, said Virginia Painter, spokeswoman for the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

"We're going to have to close some parks," Painter said. "We're looking first at the 13 parks we don't own, but we operate. Then, we'd go into the list of 10 state-owned parks."

Closing a park would prohibit camping and parking, but residents still could hike, fish and beach-comb. Maintenance of landscaping and utilities would stop.

The state maintains and operates 13 parks - mostly in Eastern Washington - on land that is owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Chelan Public Utilities District or other government bodies. Lake Cushman, which is owned by Tacoma Power, is among those parks.

Painter said the state leases those parks for free. Parks officials plan to ask those government bodies if they will help pay for operations to keep them open.

If they say no - as the Bureau of Reclamation said Friday - they will have to be closed, she said.

State officials have not yet met with Tacoma Power about Lake Cushman, she said.

Debbie Young, natural resources manager for Tacoma Power, said Lake Cushman park has the only public boat launch on the hydropower reservoir. The park also hosts campers who visit the Olympic National Park through the nearby Staircase Rapids Entrance.

She said it's too early to determine what the utility will do.

Gov. Gary Locke in December proposed cutting the parks commission operating budget by $2.6 million. The House would cut it by $3.1 million; the Senate by $3.8 million.

"With the Senate budget, we definitely would have to be well into that list of 10 state-owned parks," Painter said.

Tolmie is second on the closure list. Nolte is third. Kopachuck is fifth.

Closing even a few state parks will affect a lot of people, Brad and Roseann Reynolds of Des Moines said Friday while walking Rivers, their 14-month-old flat-coated retriever at Kopachuck State Park.

"There are so many people and families that use the parks," Roseann Reynolds said. "It's like being back in nature, but still close to the cities. It's so peaceful."

Although Friday was their first visit to Kopachuck, the Reynoldses enjoyed their stroll down a wooded path to the beach. They also appreciate that state parks allow dog owners to take their pets on the trails, something most other parks don't do.

"We enjoy our state parks," Brad Reynolds said. "I think it's unfortunate that it would get to this point" of closing facilities.

Nolte Park, about five miles north of Enumclaw, is so popular that many people use it before it officially opens each year, said John Keates, Enumclaw parks director. The park contains Deep Lake, used by fishermen and boaters, and a heavily used hiking trail around the lake.

"After it's open," Keates said, "it's packed."

Tolmie Park, on south Puget Sound north of Lacey, is one of only three parks in rapidly growing Thurston County that provide public access to marine shorelines. The two others are county parks.

Painter said the commission also is looking to increase the $13 overnight camping fee and the $10 to $16 moorage fees by $1 or $2 each.

If parks are closed, a gate would be placed across the entrance where practicable, restrooms would be locked and utilities would be shut off, she said. There would be no staffing except for periodic security checks.

Sen. Darlene Fairley (D-Lake Forest Park), chairwoman of the Senate Capital Budget subcommittee, said she put an extra $16 million into the Senate building budget so parks could make repairs to many facilities.

In exchange, she said, commissioners have agreed not to impose a new $5 day-use (parking) fee.

"They can't be putting day-use fees on," Fairley said. "I had a promise from them."

Cleve Pinnix, parks director, said there was no quid pro quo for the additional maintenance money. But commissioners don't plan to impose the fee this year anyway, he said.

Proposed cuts to the parks operating budget are efforts by Locke and the Legislature to close a $1.6 billion shortfall in the state's overall $22.8 billion operating budget.

House and Senate budget-writers hope to negotiate a compromise by Thursday, when the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn.



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