Discover Pass fix could mean higher car tab fees

OLYMPIA -- Anyone who has spent time Washington's outdoors knows the park permitting system can be confusing.

If you drive to forested land and park,  which pass do you use? Is it the Discover Pass? The Northwest Forest Pass? A federal BLM Pass?  Representatives from Washington State Parks say there are more than 20 different passes and permits for recreational land users in the state, if you include daily and annual versions.

At the request of the legislature, State Parks is studying ways to simplify the pass system.

The agency worked with the William D. Ruckelshaus Center in hopes of coming up with ways that would improve pass consistency and equity and maintain funding.

"The public has been saying 'we don't understand what fees, what passes we use for what lands,'" said Daniel Farber, the director of policy and governmental affairs for Washington State Parks. "So (the legislature) asked us to study that."

State Parks along with the Ruckelhaus Center, came up with three main ways to improve the pass system.

The first and preferred? Eliminate the Discover Pass altogether and fund parks through the general fund, with methods like increasing the cost of car tabs.

"The highest recommendation is going back to what it used to be, to not have a day fee but to have it paid by all of us, the public," Farber said.

Prior to the Discover Pass, State Parks received 75 percent of its operating budget from the general fund, officials said. Now, general taxes support less than 25 percent of the Parks budget, and the Discover Pass accounts for 34.4 percent of earned revenue.

Of course, the idea of raising car tabs is none too popular. An outcry followed the approval of ST3, as people around the region saw their car tab fees jump into the triple digits.

The study also offered ways to tweak the current pass system, such as requiring everyone who use outdoor lands to buy a single, more cost-efficient pass, or compiling all the passes into one.

"There's the idea of going to a single vehicle pass at a lower price, and requiring everyone who uses the outdoors to purchase it," Farber said.

In the end, the study concluded more analysis was needed before a final decision to fix the pass system was made, Farber said. Some small changes to the pass system could come toward the end of 2018. But anything big - like eliminating the Discover Pass and getting park funds paid through the general fund - is not likely for at least another year, Farber said.

"Any significant changes won't occur at least until the 2019 legislative session," Farber said.

Despite pass confusion, Farber said the Discover Pass has been one of the strongest revenue generators in the country. It's also one of the lowest-priced passes of its kind, Farber said.

But any room for improvement is welcomed, Farber said.