Paying to Play at State Parks

May 9, 2013—Hilltromper has a confession to make: we've been sneaking into state parks for a long time.

It's embarrassing, but here's how it goes. We go to our favorite park, park on a nearby street, climb under the fence and saunter or pedal away. It's ridiculously easy. There's virtually no danger of being ticketed. And it is not helping the financially strapped parks system one little bit.

We've never felt quite right about this. It falls into the same conscience-nagging category as listening to public radio without contributing—the main difference being that the state parks system doesn't send a half-dozen likable, well-known people to rattle a tin cup in your face twice a year. Starting this website has caused some soul-searching on the matter, too. After all, our love of Santa Cruz County's state parks is a major reason we started Hilltromper. But it wasn't until we read this LA Times opinion piece that we really got to thinking seriously about the parks freerider problem and how to deal with it.

The state parks department budget is about $300 million a year. Roughly $75 million of that comes from day use fees. The Legislative Analyst's Office figures that if one-eighth of the people who currently visit the parks for free were to pay, it would bring in revenue "in the low tens of millions of dollars annually." Low tens of millions — sounds like that figure could be about $20 million, right? Guess how much the state parks budget was short in 2011, when the state announced the closure of 70 parks: $22 million.

The author of the Times piece makes the case for a different approach to collecting state parks day use fees, which she argues are too high, especially when compared to national parks entrance fees. Ditto state parks annual passes, which run $125-$195, compared to $80 for a national parks pass. The writer makes intriguing suggestions, like installing meters at the outlaw parking spots. (Imagine if that money went straight to the local parks!) Another tack involves creating regionalized annual passes. What if you could buy a five-parks annual pass for $50? Easier to swallow, right? And maybe—just maybe—a lower price point would allow more people to do the right thing, and the state parks system could actually get a revenue boost out of the deal.

That's why this week Hilltromper started an online workshop on parks day use fees at On Civinomics you can make suggestions, vote on other people's ideas, post informative resources or just air your thinky thoughts. For free—all you have to do is sign up, and that's easy and risk-free, because Civinomics won't sell your email address.

Please visit, check in with our workshop and make a suggestion or cast a vote. Wouldn't it be great if we could give our parks some love in exchange for all they give us?

Last thing: with a combination of shame and relief, we're buying a Golden Poppy State Parks Pass. We'll let you know when it comes in.

UPDATE 9/30/14: In June 2013 we got a Golden Poppy pass for $125 and used it, very happily, for a year. When it came time to renew it, the Golden Poppy pass had been discontinued, so we got the special 150th Anniversary State Parks Pass for $150. Alas, a higher price rather than a lower one—opposite the direction we'd hoped State Parks will go. But the Parks Forward final proposals aren't out, and we don't know what California State Parks will do with this moment of reinvention. Stay tuned.

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