Survey Finds Strong Support from Recreation Users, Identifies Areas for Improvement; Compared with Other States, Discover Pass is a Good Value

SEATTLE – Washington’s new Discover Pass may not be bringing in buckets of cash for strapped land management agencies, but it’s not for lack of public support. A new survey of outdoor recreationists in Washington found that 69% support the Discover Pass to keep state recreation lands open and funded, and just 17% oppose it.

“People feel connected to their State Parks, and that’s reinforced by the strong support that the Discover Pass enjoys,” said Jonathan Guzzo, advocacy director for Washington Trails Association (WTA), the group that developed the survey.  “The ongoing state budget crisis might have forced State Parks to close iconic places like Wallace Falls and Beacon Rock. We had to find a sustainable funding source to keep them open this year, and while the Discover Pass is not a perfect solution, it’s a big step in the right direction.”

Two months ago marked the beginning of Washington’s Discover Pass. That’s the new $30 vehicle access pass that is now required for entrance to state lands, including all State Parks, Department of Natural Resource lands (like Mount Si) and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife lands.

Two months in, Washington Trails Association wanted to hear from hikers, who are one of the biggest user groups on these state lands.

“We asked hikers, ‘Have you bought a Discover Pass? Do you support the Discover Pass? What changes would you like to see implemented in the pass administration?'” explained Lauren Braden, WTA’s communications director. “We carefully crafted an online survey that would give us solid data, and we cast a wide net using social media. In a week, more than 2,900 Washingtonians had taken the survey.”

The single biggest gripe about the Discover Pass? It’s a single-vehicle pass, and not transferable between vehicles. Users must pay full price for an additional pass if they use a second vehicle. WTA’s survey found that 87% do not think the one-pass-per-vehicle is a reasonable structure for the Discover Pass.

“We heard from a lot of families who use more than one vehicle for recreation. For example, they might take their sedan out for a picnic or a day hike, but load up their truck for fishing trips,” said Guzzo. “Since 87% of our respondents opposed the one-pass-per-vehicle structure, it’s a priority for us to work with the legislature and the agencies to come up with common-sense solutions that both serve the public and satisfy the funding needs of our public lands.”

Inspiration for those solutions may be provided by other states’ models. South Dakota, for example, charges more for a transferable pass. Idaho, Wisconsin and others offer a discount for a second vehicle pass.

The bottom line, however, is money.

“We expect this issue to continue to be a part of public and legislative discussion, though the bottom-line problem remains that we need to make a certain amount of revenue to keep operating,” said Virginia Painter, public affairs director with Washington State Parks.

Washington state is forecasting another deep revenue shortfall in 2012, which will likely lead to more budget cuts. And, the Discover Pass is not yet on pace to bring in the $54 million it needs to bring in on a biennial basis to fully support the recreation budgets of State Parks, DNR lands, and WDFW lands.

“As we gear up for the next legislative session, early indications are that we could be $2 billion in the red next year. That’s on top of multi-billion dollar deficits in the previous three sessions. The legislature is not talking about cutting fat anymore. We’re dealing with the bones and connective tissue of state government,” said Guzzo. “Even with the Discover Pass in place, state lands could be threatened with closure, particularly if the Pass is not generating enough revenue.”

WTA asked respondents if they’d be willing to pay even more for a Discover Pass should Washington State Parks and DNR lands again face closure, and 58% of respondents said they would pay more.

The state agencies that administer the Discover Pass are also continually seeking ways to help users purchase the pass in ways that are convenient to them.

“We have QR codes on all of the signs which will take you to a website. When you buy the pass, you get a confirmation number that serves as your pass for the day,” Painter said. “We also have lots of other options, such as self-registration at the park for those who want to buy a one-day pass. But we really recommend that people buy the pass ahead of time. There are more than 600 vendors through Department of Fish and Wildlife’s license purchasing system, so we hope that is very convenient.”

Along with the Discover Pass survey of users, Washington Trails Association looked at the State Park fee access structure of all fifty states to determine how Washington’s Discover Pass stacks up.

For a high-resolution version of this infographic, click here.

“We discovered that most states in the US charge a fee for people to access their State Parks and other state-managed recreation lands,” said Lauren Braden. “Fifteen states have no fee at all. Washington’s $30 Discover Pass is on the lower end, cost-wise, of states that have a fee. We believe that the Discover Pass stacks up pretty well and appears to be a good value.”

Some may even argue the value of access to our public lands cannot be measured in terms of dollars. “Had the Discover Pass not been in place, most of the parks in the system would have been closed,” said Painter. “So buy a pass. Tell your friends. Tell them why it’s needed.”

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