Forest Discovery Trail

The view of Diamond Head from the Forest Discovery Trail near Blewett Pass. 

OLYMPIA — A bill in the Washington Legislature would get rid of the Discover Pass, eliminating the $30 annual fee thousands of motorists now pay to enter state parks. 

Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, is sponsoring Senate Bill 6174, which would make access to over 100 state parks, 700 water-access points, and 350 recreation sites free for all. Currently, motorists must pay a $30 annual pass or $10 day pass, or risk getting slapped with a $99 fine. 

Many park visitors skip paying the entry fee. For instance, in Skamania County, home to Beacon Rock and Spring Creek Hatchery State Parks, the district court can see more than 100 tickets in a two-week period during the busy season. 

The Discover Pass was adopted in 2011, after the recession made it difficult for the state to adequately fund state parks.

Now, Washington’s State Parks and Recreation Commission relies on the user fee for about 25%, or about $41.3 million, of its 2017-2019 $166.6 million operating budget — more than any other source of revenue.

The state budget’s general fund would make up for the lost revenue.

Schoesler’s bill cites that in the first two years of the Discover Pass, there were about 7 million fewer visits to the parks, which had previously seen an annual 42 million visits.  However, those numbers have since climbed to 38 million, and the parks commission projects them to increase in the next year. 

Anna Gill, spokeswoman for the Parks and Recreation Commission, says that while the Discover Pass largely funds the maintenance and operation of parks, it’s important for parks to be as accessible as possible.

That’s why the parks offer 12 “free days,” and discounts for some veterans and senior citizens. School buses get in for free, and residents can even check out a backpack with binoculars and a Discover Pass from some public libraries.

Now that the recession is over, Schoesler says, it’s time to give back to taxpayers. Other lawmakers have the same idea — but for different projects — and are pushing for free feminine hygiene products or the elimination of sales tax on diapers. These are “nice ideas,” says Schoesler, but they all only impact a segment of the population.

“This is the broadest thing we could do for Washington residents,” Schoesler said, noting that residents from all districts enjoy state parks. “And the price tag is not a budget buster.”

However, the Senate’s chief budget writer, Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, says the funding may not be that easy to secure. Lawmakers in both parties, along with Gov. Jay Inslee, already established that the session’s priority is to address the state’s homelessness crisis. Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, ranking member of the Housing Stability and Affordability Committee, says any surplus money should be used to tackle homelessness.

Rolfes also emphasized that the Discover Pass is a parking fee, not an entrance fee, and the state already offers free parking to those who “most need it,” like low income families and foster families.

The Bainbridge Island senator says she appreciates Schoesler’s proposal, but it’s unlikely that lawmakers will direct funding toward it this session. Instead of eliminating the user fee, she says the state should prioritize investments that would get parks back to their pre-recession state.

At the end of the day, Gill says the parks just want “stable, adequate, and predictable funding solutions.”