YAKIMA, Wash. -- Imagine planning hikes in Washington without wondering which pass to bring, or better yet, whether one is even needed at all.

That’s the future proposed in a report issued last December with the goal of simplifying a system featuring more than 20 unique passes and permits for recreation on the state’s public lands. Several ideas supported by virtually everyone seem easily fixable, while others pose some logistical hurdles, making it unclear how quickly the state could implement meaningful changes.

At the same time, tax dollars going towards management of those lands continues to decrease, adding urgency to the need to find fair and equitable sources of revenue. Washington State Parks especially must find new ways to fund its $169 million spent on recreation after going from 80 percent tax-funded to 20 percent over the last decade.

Washington Department of Natural Resources recreation manager Brock Milliern knows frustration and misunderstandings exist when hikers head out to state and federal lands. Even more concerning, while Washington does better than many states in making its trails and other outdoor amenities affordable, they’re not accessible to everyone.

“There’s no denying that a Discover Pass prohibits at least some people from getting out on state lands and we want to avoid that,” Milliern said, noting the difficulty of finding the right balance between a fair price and acquiring enough revenue to keep properties maintained. “It’s really a question we as a team wrestle with a lot.”

Legislators took action in 2016 by passing a bill to involve The William D. Ruckelshaus Center, a joint effort of Washington State University and the University of Washington. The public policy center’s project manager, Molly Stenovec, said a “leadership team” and other groups formed from a diverse group of stakeholders met for four hours every three weeks for about eight months in 2017.

In the end, they recommended a pass-free option with revenue instead coming from a more sustainable and dedicated source of public funding, although the group made no specific recommendation for how that fee would be implemented. Earlier this year, another entity at WSU began a fiscal analysis to determine the appropriate costs and potential revenues of a pass-free option, as well as two other alternatives.

 

Finding a better way

Few people in the Yakima area hike more frequently or at as many different places as the Cascadians, but president Jim Boyd said even their members don’t always know what pass to bring.

A Northwest Forest Pass, Interagency Pass or Senior Pass works on federal lands and state lands generally require a Discover Pass, except in the winter when a Sno-Park pass is needed. Other passes, such as a National Parks Pass or a Bureau of Land Management permit can also provide more limited access when put on the dashboard.

“Half the time we pull up to a trail and nobody knows what pass we need today,” Boyd said. “So we just lay out our Discover Pass and our Senior Pass. That way we’ve got it covered.”

Legislators listed eliminating those issues as one of their top priorities, and Milliern said he’s heard it discussed for several years. The group identified consolidating state and federal passes as a key element in all three potential packages.

“I think there’s clear consensus around that,” Milliern said. “I think there are hurdles to implementing that.”

Milliern’s staff contributed to the report and he said along with the task of figuring out how the revenues would be split, agencies would need assurances that fees and systems wouldn’t change at the federal level. It’s not something he expects to happen anytime soon, and Bruce Zimmer, recreation manager of the U.S. Forest Service’s Naches District, agrees.

Other changes could go into effect more quickly, such as consistent free days across all agencies and a single resource to provide information for every area, similar to what the Washington Trails Association offers for many hikes on its website. Another group working closely with the leadership team focused solely on standardizing exemptions for veterans, disabled persons, seniors and others to ensure those groups don’t need to meet different criteria for each agency.

As for the recommendation of eliminating passes and funding agencies through another source, Milliern said it could be difficult to find consensus. The report mentioned the possibility of adding a mandatory public land management fee with vehicle registration, but it stopped short of recommending that option and fails to address the concerns of people who don’t want to pay for public lands they’ll never use, which Boyd believes comprises the majority of Washingtonians.

“I can see it working and I can see it working to generate more income than we’re getting from it now,” Boyd said. “If something like that was put out for a general vote, I think it would go down.”

Along with a new and improved pass covering more lands, the group’s alternatives to the pass-free option included a single-vehicle pass for around half the price of the Discover Pass. For now, drivers can put two license plates on one pass, so it’s good for two different cars but not at the same time.

Zimmer likes the idea of a more affordable option for those who don’t want to pay $30 — often $35 with transaction fees — for a Discover Pass. But that price doesn’t bother Boyd and he’s surely not alone in his willingness to pay increased fees if it means better maintenance of their beloved trails.

 

Fighting for funding

The recession and corresponding budget cuts forced Washington State Parks to eliminate many jobs and even limit access to some facilities.

That led to the creation of the Discover Pass program in 2011, although revenues initially came in 50 percent short of projections. New marketing strategies helped raise those totals, but most state agencies remain underfunded.

State Parks faces a growing maintenance backlog of more than $500 million and Zimmer said the forest service faces decreasing general fund contributions and a significant backlog as well. Meanwhile, the state recently stopped giving any general fund money to the much smaller recreation budget of Washington’s Department of Natural Resources.

Other states face similar problems and most responded by raising fees far higher than Washington, which falls well below the average minimum cost of $47.50 for an annual pass on state lands. But out of 37 states offering daily passes, Washington’s $10 pass is the second-most expensive.

Even as the new ideas to create revenue and reduce complexity move forward through additional analysis and presentations to legislative committees, many costs continue to rise. Zimmer said the forest service plans to raise some of its fees, largely for campgrounds, for the first time since 2005, and it seems every agency faces similarly difficult financial decisions just to keep providing the same services.

“Our goal is not to shut people out and make it too expensive to recreate, of course,” Zimmer said. “But we feel that it’s time, at least on the forest, to raise some fees and address some of that maintenance backlog.”