Consider the similarities. Both Idaho and Washington are this year graced with budget surpluses: $214 million in Idaho and a whopping $1.4 billion in Washington. (Even in per capita terms, Washington’s surplus is roughly 50 percent larger than Idaho’s.) Both Idaho and Washington are also graced with stunning natural features and a populace that purports to love the outdoors. But both are also cursed by a crumbling infrastructure of woefully underfunded state parks.
Enter Idaho’s republican governor, Dirk Kempthorne, who wants to spend $34 million on upgrading and expanding Idaho’s park system. Maybe Kempthorne is selfish—he’s known to camp frequently in the summer. Or maybe he’s just a wise investor—officials calculate a big return on the investment, according to the Idaho Statesman:
The economic benefits of spending about $34 million on construction and improvements of state parks would bring $52.5 million to the state’s economy through goods, services, leisure and hospitality and other types of sales, according to state figures.
And what’s Washington proposing to do with its park system? That’s where the similarities end. Washington’s proposing, well, pretty much nothing.
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One republican legislator from Chehalis wants to use the money to abolish park entrance fees, though that would leave the parks in the same fiscal predicament they’re in now. Otherwise, as far as I know, no one’s made a peep about spending some of the windfall on Washington’s parks.
In national terms, Washington’s state parks are almost laughably underfunded. When it comes to park funding, the Evergreen State is something like Mississippi of the economy. That’s a real tragedy in a place that boasts little visited coastlines, lakes, forests, mountains, deserts, canyons, and rivers that would be emblems of state pride in other parts of the country.
And state parks are a public good that protect ecosystems even while they help thousands of people experience nature’s bounty. As it turns out, they’re a pretty good investment too.
If you’re still skeptical, consider the following facts from the Washington State Parks website:
- The backlog of major maintenance needed in Washington State Parks is now estimated at $40 million. Capital facilities needs are estimated at $300 million over 10 years.
Washington spends only 82 cents per park visitor compared to the national average of $2.82 per visitor.
The State Parks system is currently expected to generate 37 percent of its own funding, compared to 20 percent a decade ago.
State spending on parks as a portion of the total state budget has declined in the last decade. It is less than one quarter of one percent of the state budget. Yet, parks contribute more than $1.1 billion to the state’s economy.