Camping family Washington State ParkWashington State is considering being the first in the nation to make its Parks Department self-sustaining. Facing a $3 billion budget deficit, Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire is proposing cutting funding to zero.

“We were broke,” said Marty Brown, director of the state Office of Financial Management. “Of all the entities in state government, it (the Parks Dept.) was one we thought actually had possibilities of income generation.”

Change is taking root. Up until 2011 it was free to enter state parks for the day. Now there’s a $10 a day use fee, which can be avoided if visitors buy a Discover Pass for $30 — good for all parks for a calendar year. Sales for the Discover Pass have so far been disappointing.

In an effort to boost revenue, vending machines and concession buildings are starting to pop up. Also, small cabins are being built at campgrounds attracting visitors who are willing to pay more than the price for a camp site.

Things under consideration: variable pricing, charging more during peak season and less during the winter months. The staff of 123 park rangers was deemed expendable, prompting anger from some park advocate groups.

In the Washington State Parks Department, labor accounts for 85 percent of the budget. It’s less than half that much for private companies. Retirees are frequently tapped to live and work at the parks.

Some believe private companies can actually improve the experience people have at state parks. Lower salaries allow for more money to go into maintenance and marketing.

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