$5 fee at state parks is gone

OLYMPIA — Washington is removing the $5 day-use parking fee from its 120 state parks. The much-maligned fee had caused park attendance to plummet in the three years since it was imposed.

Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the repeal bill Monday, and state parks Director Rex Derr said rangers will no longer ask that day users pay the fee.

Repeal isn't official until March 31, when the governor signs a state budget that also includes a ban on the day-use fees. The repeal bill takes effect April 9.

But as a practical matter, the fee is gone, and Derr said, "We want people back."

Washington returns to its status as the only state in the West without day-use fees in at least some parks.

Derr said patrons may continue to pay for the rest of the month if they wish, but rangers won't expect it. Parks will begin taking down pay-to-park signs. The agency can arrange for partial refund of the $50 annual permit that also was an option.

Derr and the citizen commission that runs the system were concerned about the repeal legislation because of the multimillion-dollar revenue loss.

But Monday, Derr took a more optimistic view.

"I'm happy," he said. "Parks are there for everyone and we love people being able to use their park system.

"I do expect the return of several million visitors. We estimate that it could be between 3 and 6 million additional visitor-days we're talking about."

After the fee was imposed by the state Parks and Recreation Commission, with the blessing of the Legislature, park attendance slid by about 8 million, down from more than 45 million. Derr said part of that probably was because of the spike in gasoline prices, bad weather and other causes.

The fee, authorized during a recession as a way to keep the park system afloat, had raised $11.5 million as of December.

It cost about $3 million to set up the collection system and to hire about 55 employees statewide.

The parks agency has a two-year budget of $90 million.