Washington State wants park system to think like the private sector

Washington State is considering being the first in the nation to make its Parks Department self-sustaining. As recently as 2009 the legislature appropriated $94 million toward the operating budget of the state’s 117 parks. But now, facing a $3 billion budget deficit, Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire is proposing cutting funding to zero.

“We were broke,” said Marty Brown, director of the state Office of Financial Management. “Of all the entities in state government, it (the Parks Dept.) was one we thought actually had possibilities of income generation.”

State parks attract 40 million visits a year. Getting off the public dole will require competing for entertainment dollars, improving services while being cost-effective. In short, lifelong bureaucrats like Don Hoch are required to think like the private sector.

“We just started a new partnership division,” says Hoch, director of Washington State Parks. “We’ve started marketing. We have to develop a new skill set that we’ve never had to develop before. We were never in the competition business.”

Change is taking root. Up until 2011 it was free to enter state parks for the day. Now there’s a $10 a day use fee, which can be avoided if visitors buy a Discover Pass for $30 -- good for all parks for a calendar year. Sales for the Discover Pass have so far been disappointing.

In an effort to boost revenue, vending machines and concession buildings are starting to pop up. Also, small cabins are being built at campgrounds attracting visitors who are willing to pay more than the price for a camp site.

Things under consideration: variable pricing, charging more during peak season and less during the winter months. The staff of 123 park rangers was deemed expendable, prompting anger from some park advocate groups.

“We see all kinds of bad things happen,” says Jonathan Guzzo of the Washington Trails Association. “We see not only deterioration of trails and other facilities, we see vandalism, illegal activity and dumping.”

Guzzo says volunteer groups like his have picked up some of the slack by doing some trail maintenance and giving educational talks typically done by rangers.

While some decry privatization, it’s already happening on a limited basis. American Land and Leisure Co. based in Utah manages campgrounds in National Forests and three state parks in California. They collect gate fees, sell firewood and other concessions and clean the bathrooms. Steve Werner of American Land and Leisure says he’s able to save state’s money by paying a lot less for labor.

In the Washington State Parks Department, labor accounts for 85 percent of the budget. It’s less than half that much for private companies. Retirees are frequently tapped to live and work at the parks.

Some believe private companies can actually improve the experience people have at state parks. Lower salaries allow for more money to go into maintenance and marketing.

“State government is pretty bad at advertising the experience you can have at public parks,” says Paul Guppy of the Washington State Policy Center, “but a private company would have much more incentive to broaden their appeal to a wider public to encourage more people to come.”

The key is attracting visitors without turning these public parks into theme parks.

Hoch doesn’t think he can do it without help from the taxpayers. He’s asking the state legislature for $18 million.