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Menzel TOM

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FOR SALE, LEASE OR TRADE: 120,000 acres of prime Washington real estate. Valued at more than $3 billion. Includes 116 parks, 700 historic buildings, cabins, yurts, vacation houses, forts, fabulous wedding venues, and dozens of stunning beaches. Buy now and get naming rights for hokey park names like Cape Disappointment, Steamboat Rock, Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea. Contact Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission or your local state legislator.

Pardon the hyperbole, but this scenario may not be too far off since our parks have become nothing but financial burdens that need to be monetized. After the legislature voted in 2011 to cut off all general fund support for our state parks and replace it with user-fees (“earned income”), the State Parks and Recreation Commission has been scrambling to keep them open and operating while continuing to make its case for stable funding sources.

Unfortunately, the latest desperate attempts to shore up lost revenue – a $30 annual “Discover Pass” and a $10 day-use fee – have fallen 50 percent short of projections. So now we have a critical funding crisis, yet one more chapter in the ridiculous quest to run government like a business. As state parks director Don Hoch said last summer: “At no time in our 100-year history have we been in a position like this, where we have to make so many tough decisions.”

Palous Falls
Palouse Falls State Park (photo/state of Washington)

A report to the Parks and Recreation Commission last August says that no other state follows such a self-funded model, calling it “impractical” and “unachievable.” So now we have a rare opportunity to lead the way to the bottom in park management. The visionary generations who came before us are rolling over in their graves.

Ironically, the legislature’s target for defunding our parks is this year, 2013, which happens to be the 100th anniversary of our state park system. Many of the noble and ambitious plans to upgrade, expand and improve the parks for the centennial celebration have been shelved. State Parks has already made painful staff and spending reductions and has been planning for “previously unthinkable reductions.”

In the very year when we should be bursting with pride to celebrate these crown jewels, we are casting this loyal old dog out into the cold without food or shelter – sort of like filing for divorce on your 50th anniversary party. And we now have a draft of the divorce papers in the form of a report released January 29th by the Parks and Recreation Commission. It’s called “Transformation Strategy – Adapting to a new way of operating Washington’s state parks.”

This is not a fun read unless you like hearing about good people begging for help. I can imagine the seven volunteer commissioners weeping as they sat through countless McKinseyesque workshops and public meetings and finally forcing themselves to approve this document. They are doing the best they can. They are doing what they have to do.

But the 27-page report reads like notes from a corporate retreat. It uses the word “business” 20 times. “Lease” shows up 13 times. It includes buzzwords straight from Dilbert, like: forming strategic partnerships; strategies and initiatives to help create a new business model; transformation principles with imperatives that will drive agency-wide planning, resource allocation and day-to-day decisions; core values and cultural norms that promote organizational change and innovation; specific action-oriented initiatives that will advance agency transformation. And, my favorite, it boldly encourages a decimated park staff to embrace risk-taking, accepting responsibility for the outcome and “excellence in all we do.”

The report even sheepishly admits a dark secret: “For many years parks and recreation providers believed that technology had no place in parks. Even commissioners and staff believed state parks should remain technology-free.” Imagine that.

The report concludes with a 10-page to-do list (“Transformation Initiatives”) that includes some excellent plans to protect and restore plant and animal communities, the Puget Sound shoreline environment and cultural and historic properties. But then it directs park staff to “adopt a business management approach” that you might find in a General Motors strategic plan. Much of the list is devoted to initiatives involving lean management, data management, fees, a Discover Pass business plan (prepared by a consultant), “park enterprise” (retail sales of park-branded stuff), concessions, marketing and advertising, and other initiatives like cabin upgrades, new signage, events, recreation programs, partnerships and sponsorships.

The report calls for a “systematic approach to continual process improvement,” “transitioning all fee programs into a market-based system of competitive rates for facilities and services,” developing “a robust program to market the Discover Pass and the state park system” and expanding “opportunities for tasteful and appropriate park and private enterprises in parks.” It insists that “State Parks must now compete effectively for people’s recreation and leisure time and money.”

Several consultants have already been signed up to lend their expertise to this “new normal” in park management. And they will be the only winners.

What’s going on here? These are public lands! These are our parks! Get rid of the consultants and hire back those rangers!

Perhaps most draconian are the proposed “best practices from the public and private sector with regard to pricing” for campsites, which the Parks Commission included in a January 17 press release. A new fee policy under consideration would use “variable pricing options typical in the private sector” to “increase earnings from premier sites for weekends, holidays and prime seasons.”

The proposed base camping fees are outrageous enough, ranging from $12 for a primitive campsite and $25 for a standard tent site, to $35 for a full-utility site. But here’s the clincher: “In addition, the policy would allow the agency to charge up to an additional $15 for designated premier sites and up to $8 on standard or $15 for RV campsites for weekends and holidays” (i.e., those who can afford it will get the best campsites). The policy also includes discounts for “designated economy sites” (muddy campsites? no trees? next to a generator?) year round and during the winter.

I’ll be blunt. This sucks. Bottom line: Those who can afford it get the best campsites at the best times. Those who cannot will get the dregs. One way or another, we seem determined to balance this budget on the backs of regular folk who picnic, camp and vacation at our state parks on very limited family budgets. They won’t show up because they can’t. And we’ll wonder why park attendance drops like a rock. As State Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor said last summer: “For many people, those parks are the only outing that they can get, and we need to keep those costs as close to zero as we can.”

How cheap can we get? This is the home of Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing, Starbucks, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen. This is a state dominated by Democrats. This is in a country that is spending $27 billion for a new aircraft carrier. That’s enough to fund Washington’s parks for 287 years at 2009 levels ($94 million).

With 40 million visitors annually, Washington’s state parks are among the most popular in the nation. That’s 13 times the number of visitors to Yellowstone National Park. As the report says: “State parks are the places where the largest numbers of Washingtonians visit, to know, respect, and love the natural world.” They “get people of all ages, abilities, and means off the couch, moving, and re-creating themselves away from the hectic pace of modern life.”

It’s painful to watch dedicated park staff and members of the Parks and Recreation Commission fight like hell to maintain access to what we all have a right to enjoy. Defunding our parks is an embarrassment. We must stop comparing them to the private sector and hiring ad agencies and property consultants to squeeze every nickel and dime out of shores, lakes, beaches and trails that belong to us all. Instead of pricing people out, we must do exactly the opposite.

As funding measures move through the legislature in the coming days and weeks, we can only hope they will restore full funding to our parks, kill the Discovery Pass and day-use fee, return camping fees to levels that are affordable to all, and do whatever it takes to raise revenue needed to fund Washington’s priorities.

However, I fear that we are about to dismantle a park system that millions of people have enjoyed for a century. I fear that our parks, along with our educational system and so many other critical public programs, will continue their downward spiral until Washington has the guts to create a balanced tax system, ignore the Tim Eymans among us and renew our commitment to the greater good.

The January 29th transformation strategy is clearly marked “DRAFT.” If we’re smart, we’ll toss it in the recycling bin, restore full funding to our parks and proudly carry out the ambitious plans for Centennial 2013 adopted by the Parks and Recreation Commission a decade ago. We’ll do this not only for future generations, but to honor the legacy of the visionary generations who came before us.

Draft state parks transformation strategy report

Tom Menzel, of Hansville, Washington, is a communications consultant, community volunteer and former newspaper editor.

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