When Yellowstone was set aside in 1872 as the world's first national park, it marked the start of a new attitude toward the American outdoors. Citizens gradually came to see value in saving tracts of open space for everyone to enjoy. By 1900, three more national parks had been added (including Mount Rainier National Park in 1899), and a few scattered states had begun to develop public parks of their own.
When the first National Conference of State Parks was held in 1921, 29 states still had not established any state parks at all. Washington - though its Parks Board was only a few years old - already boasted seven. The full history of Washington State Parks can be found below.
State legislature creates the Washington State Board of Park Commissioners, consisting mostly of elected officials. Lawmakers offer no official instructions, guidelines, or funding for the new board.
Board accepts first two donated park properties: John R. Jackson House, a pioneer heritage site near Chehalis, and Chuckanut State Park (now Larrabee), a forested tract with saltwater beach access near Bellingham.
House Bill 164 gives the board specific powers to:
- Acquire land, including shore and tidelands, for park purposes
- Adopt and enforce regulations for parks
- Grant concessions for services in parks
- Improve and beautify parks and parkways
- Permit citizens to camp in parks
- Plant trees along state highways
The board gets a new name - State Parks Committee. It still receives no legislative funding but is now permitted to collect concession rentals and camping fees.
1921 - 1928
Car ownership zooms, as does demand for new destinations. The committee adds approximately a dozen new parks, including the system's first significant geological site (Crawford State Park north of Spokane) and its first decommissioned military post (Fort Ward on Bainbridge Island).
1928 - 1931
Governor Roland Hartley, elected on the promise to "reduce the cost of government and lighten the burden of taxation," vetoes every legislatively-approved state parks budget of his four-year term. Most parks are closed and facilities deteriorate due to vandalism and lack of maintenance.
Three years into the Great Depression, newly elected Governor Clarence D. Martin approves state parks funding again. Hard times increase public demand for parks that families can visit for free.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announces the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal relief program that puts young men to work planting trees, fighting fires, and developing public park lands. Washington State Parks benefits tremendously from this and other relief work programs during the Great Depression. Even now, more than six decades later, scores of roads, hiking trails, bathhouses, and picnic shelters built by "The Three C's" are in active use.
1940 - 1945
State park development grinds to a halt during World War II.
A booming post-war economy and an overall increase in leisure time fuels interest in outdoor recreation. A new parks bill passed by the legislature transforms the State Parks Committee into the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. Four of its seven appointees must be private citizens and all are to have some experience in parks and recreation. The commission is given authority to hire a director of Parks and Recreation to oversee the state parks system.
1950 - 1960
Increased legislative funding and skyrocketing public demand spur a flurry of land acquisitions. The number of state park areas increases from 79 properties in 1950 to 130 properties 10 years later. These include a half dozen marine parks, the first in an extensive system of parks designed just for boaters. Annual attendance at state parks soars from 1.6 million at the start of the decade to seven million in 1960.
1961 - 1970
A combination of voter-approved state funding and new federal programs for outdoor recreation gives Washington State Parks a chance to improve old facilities while continuing to add new ones. Among the significant acquisitions of this period are the Seashore Conservation Area (providing more access to public beaches) and military forts Ebey and Worden (completing the system's string of historic coastal defenses).
The legislature restructures the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, making it an all-citizen board. No commissioners are permitted to hold any elective or full-time appointive government office.
1971 - 1980
Outdoor recreation thrives, along with a growing interest in environmental issues. Park users engage in more and more specialized activities, from cross-country skiing and snowmobiling to riding all-terrain vehicles. Land acquisition slows compared to the feverish pace of the '50s and '60s, but the legislature funds a variety of new recreation programs - especially winter trail sports.
1980 - 1988
Washington's economy hits hard times as timber and aerospace industries slump. Only a handful of new lands are acquired during this period. Budget cuts strike the state parks system. Staffing is cut and maintenance deferred while the number of visitors climbs.
Voters pass Initiative 601, which caps state spending and restricts increases in user fees. Washington State Parks cannot raise fees sufficiently to keep up with demand for services. At the same time, the legislature requires state parks to become more self-supporting. Further cuts in staffing and more deferred maintenance follow.
One of only two facilities developed by Washington State Parks during the 1990s, Rasar State Park on the Skagit River opens in July. The second park is Hope Island, a marine park in Mason County dedicated May 13, 2000, after much work by the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition to designate the piece of land as a state park instead of a housing development.
The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, asked by Governor Gary Locke to plan for a theoretical 7% budget reduction, responds with a list of parks it would feel forced to close under those conditions. Washington State Parks is not required to take the drastic cut, but the public expresses outrage that park closures would even be considered.
Demand for recreation areas grows as everyone from mountain bikers and rock climbers to wind-surfers and scuba divers seeks room to enjoy the outdoors. Annual attendance swells to 58 million. State parks handle 40% more visitors than they did a decade ago - with little increase in staff. Funding for everyday operations has not kept pace with inflation while the increasing backlog of maintenance projects stands at more than $34 million. Challenges abound as the Washington State Parks system prepares to celebrate 90 years of service in 2003.
2003 - 2008
The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission adopts a 10-year Centennial 2013 vision to guide the system toward its 100th anniversary in 2013. The vision is to make parks "destinations of uncommon quality" of statewide and regional significance. A Centennial 2013 Plan, adopted by the commission to align staff efforts with lawmaker and public support, results in meeting goals such as increased programming, volunteer hours and partnerships, and improvements made in parks throughout the park system.
2009 - 2012
Recession-related revenue shortfalls for the state of Washington result in dramatic budget reductions for state agencies. For Washington State Parks, it means many Centennial projects are on hold. Washington State Parks' funding shifts quickly and dramatically away from general fund, to heavy reliance on use fees, including Discover Pass, created by the Legislature in 2011. Revenues do not meet projections, and further staffing losses occur, resulting in loss of approximately one-third of full-time permanent staff from around the agency and a more seasonal field staffing model. On the eve of the State Park Centennial, the Commission takes the position that the park system cannot be self-sustaining and requires a "right mix" of funding that should include general tax dollars, donations, and use fees, if it is to meet its broad mission of providing recreation and protecting natural, cultural, and historic resources.
The commission and staff continue work on a Transformation Strategy intended to guide the agency as it explores new ways of operating to stabilize the park system's finances and future. Transformation includes increasing partnerships, managing lands for greater revenue creation, more use of technology, and market-based approaches to fees for service. Citizens are invited to celebrate the Centennial by attending friend- and partner-supported events in parks all over the state.