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Thursday, March 30, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ron Judd

Parks are fee-free again, as they should be

Seattle Times staff columnist

The regular, non-Lexus folks in our little corner of the world don't get that many of them, so let's pause for a moment today to celebrate this little-noticed but hugely important victory:

Sometime in the next few days, an elderly couple will arrive with their walking sticks at Camano Island, a family will pull into a parking lot at Larrabee, a dog lover will leash up Fido at Deception Pass. And they will all see workers dismantling the "Day-use parking fee required" signs that have pockmarked Washington's crown-jewel state parks for the past three years.

Ding-dong, the fee is dead.

As of Friday, Washington reverts to its former, prouder self: a state where anyone can go walk a beach, stroll through a forest, fly a kite or wet a line without paying for the privilege.

The state parks day-use fee is gone, axed by a state Legislature that was successfully — and somewhat miraculously — cajoled by fee opponents who believed it was damaging the very park system it was designed to enhance.

After long opposing double-taxation access fees on all public lands, some of us reluctantly turned our heads and coughed when the Washington State Parks $5 day-use fee was implemented in 2003 — for a single reason: During a recession, it was offered up as the sole way to prevent a handful of the state's 120 parks from closing.

A lot of other park supporters did the same thing — until the numbers started coming in.

They showed park attendance holding steady at some parks, but plunging at others. And, eventually, they showed more than a fourth of the $11.5 million collected in parking fees from 2003 through 2005 being swallowed up by administration of the parking-fee program itself.

That's no bargain for a place that supposedly prides itself on easy access to forests, mountains, streams and shorelines. And, in a state whose financial prospects have warmed considerably in the past few years, it was simply too high a price to pay, even, as the fees originally were intended, as a means to chip away at the park system's massive maintenance backlog.

The most encouraging thing about the fee rollback is that it was spurred not by me-firster, Tim Eyman tax-rebel types, but by some of our park's most ardent supporters. A driving force behind the repeal was a park booster, Nora Porter of Port Townsend.

Porter was part of a citizen's group that, realizing the key role their hometown state park played in the local economy, scurried to raise $150,000 in a three-year "buyout contract" to keep tourist magnet Fort Worden State Park fee-free. Visitor use there subsequently increased, and countless tourism-related jobs were saved.

Let's hope someone in Olympia has the good sense to follow Port Townsend's example: Fully funded state parks should be seen as a worthy investment in public health and tourism, not self-supporting entities that fail to carry their own weight.

It's true that the patch the Legislature put on the hole left in the parks budget by extraction of parking fees is only a temporary one, and that no permanent cash source has yet been identified to make up the difference.

It's also true that Washington, with its no-fee parks, once again stands out among other Western states, all of which charge park day-use fees, like a sore thumb.

Or a shining beacon. Washington shouldn't be ashamed of its no-fee parks. It should hire a major advertising firm to brag about them from here to Canberra.

Seriously. Ditch the idiotic new "SayWA!" state slogan, fire the people who brainstormed it, and buy ads in major travel mags touting a new one: "Washington: where nature's still free."

You'd think that a state that lives, breathes and relies on sales taxes would welcome the sort of instant economy provided by families trekking across the state — or into it — to get outdoors.

In a state with a $26 billion biennial budget, the entire state-parks operating budget of about $90 million every two years is a pittance in the face of the possible tourism and public health upside.

That's why park lovers must hold their legislators' feet to the fire on finding a permanent replacement for the parking fees — and get them to kick in a little more to make our state parks the world-class places they cry out to be.

Meantime: Celebrate your victory, folks. Take an afternoon stroll in your favorite local park and revel in the freedom of it all — emphasis on "free."

And should you come across one of those heinous parking-fee signs being scrapped by a workman, grab it.

Someone up in Escrow Heights would love to have one for the trophy wall.

Ron Judd's Trail Mix column appears here every Thursday. To contact him: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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