State Parks Financing

The 2019 Legislature will consider a new state budget for 2019-21. Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission’s $197.0 million 2019-21 Operating Request asks for a larger investment of public tax dollars to supplement user fees, to continue its recovery from the losses of the Great Recession and to continue working toward a strong and healthy park system for the future.

For 2019-21, the Commission has also requested a $130 million capital budget to continue much needed park renovations and upgrades. The request focuses on improving facility conditions for park visitors, including park renovations, and also requests money to continue work on two new parks.   

Fact sheets: Operating budgetcapital budget

Current operating budget

The State Parks 2017-19 Operating Budget supports 540 permanent and 500 seasonal and other temporary employees. State Parks manages 124 developed parks, including marine parks, historic parks and long-distance trails. Through its mission, State Parks provides: 

  • Outdoor recreation opportunities
  • Stewardship of natural and cultural resources and historic preservation
  • Interpretation, events and programs that connect people with Washington’s heritage

The agency’s 2017-19 Operating Budget is $166.6 million, of which $21.1 million is for programs funded with federal and other dedicated funds. 

The remainder of the budget -- $145.5 million – funds the park system’s general operations. State Parks  relies upon revenue earned from fees to cover about 80 percent of these costs. The remaining money the agency operates on, about 20 percent, comes from taxes. The majority of this tax revenue – $19.3 million -- comes from the General Fund, and $9 million is litter tax. 

17-19 Operating budget pie chart (Dec. 2018)

State Parks relies heavily on earned revenue from user fees to keep the park system running. The majority of fee revenue comes from the Discover Pass and camping. The agency also continues to rely on donations made through the Department of Licensing’s vehicle registration system to pay for ongoing operations. Estimates for the 2017-19 biennium are:

  • Discover Pass sales of $41.3 million cover 28.4 percent of State Parks’ general operating costs.
  • Camping and other overnight accommodations are expected to generate $41.1 million and cover 28.2 percent of operating costs.
  • Boat moorage, watercraft launch, concessions, retreat centers and other various use fees generate $16 million and cover 11 percent of general operating costs.
  • Donations provide $13.1 million and cover 9  percent of general operating costs.
17-19 Earned Reveue Pie Chart

How does State Parks spend its funding?

Operating Budget

  • More than 60 percent of the State Parks operating budget pays for staffing. 
  • The agency employs rangers, park aides, interpreters, construction and maintenance staff and office assistants, as well as people from a variety of other skilled trades and professions, including electricians, carpenters, system technicians, designers and engineers, scientists, IT and human resources specialists and more.   
  • About $24 million dollars is spent on utilities, supplies, materials, and contracted services that are needed to maintain and repair facilities to keep them functioning, accessible and inviting to the public.

Capital Budget

The 2017-19 capital budget is focused primarily on renovation, repair and upgrade of existing facilities to keep them functioning and to make them accessible and attractive to the public. 

Projects also focus on assessing and upgrading the condition of facilities, trail development, additional park improvements and the initial work needed to develop of a new park.

Examples of 2017-19 Capital Projects:

  • Day-use and campground improvements
  • Multiple water, electrical and sewer system upgrades and road improvements
  • Multiple trail improvement projects
  • Building and grounds improvements at Cape Disappointment State Park and the North Head Lighthouse
  • Goldendale Observatory improvements

Did you know?

During the Great Recession, a downturn in construction and business caused a decline in tax revenues to fund state services. As a result, State Parks’ financing changed swiftly and dramatically, resulting in significant decreases in general fund support and deep reductions in park staffing and services. 

In 2011, the Legislature, explored the notion of a fully self-supporting park system and created the Discover Pass as a way to earn money to pay for parks and public lands. 

Today, Parks relies primarily on earned revenue from the Discover Pass and other fees to fund its operations. State Parks and partner agencies have worked together to improve the pass, and marketing efforts have been successful. Today, Discover Pass is one of the most reasonably priced – yet highest earning – passes of its kind in the country. 

The Commission stands firm in its position that a self-sustaining park system is not practical. The Commission advocates for sufficient, broad, ongoing public tax support to supplement earned revenues, in order to ensure the park system remains a strong economic driver for state and local economies. 

A 2015 study by Earth Economics showed that 35 million park visits resulted in a total annual economic contribution of $1.4 billion to the state; also creating 14,000 jobs and generating roughly six times the tax receipts for the General Fund that the agency receives to operate. Investing in a healthy state park system is good for the state.