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Background

How can we discourage freeloading without discouraging parks use?


A Bad Habit

We’ve all seen the cars lined up just outside the state parks entrances here in Santa Cruz County—at Wilder, at Natural Bridges, at Nisene Marks—anywhere there’s a way to avoid paying the day use fee. Maybe you’ve even done it yourself. It’s human nature. But there’s a very real cost associated with this particular human foible.

Statewide, parks day use fees account for about $75 million a year—roughly a quarter of the state park system’s revenue. Proceeds from day use fees are divided more or less equally between local districts and the parks system at large. In other words, when you pay the $10 fee to park at Wilder Ranch State Park, about $5 of it remains here in the Santa Cruz area. This is how we get interpretive kiosks, nice restrooms, water fountains, picnic areas and docents.

When we avoid paying the day use fee—however tempting it is—we further impoverish our beloved state parks.

A Pressing Need

It’s common knowledge that the state parks face severe funding challenges. In 2011, facing a $22 million shortfall for parks, the state announced that it would be closing 70 state parks—about 25 percent of the total of 278—in the summer of 2012. Last-minute scrambling by nonprofits like Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, the Sempervirens Fund and many more groups ensured that almost all those parks stayed open—temporarily.

But the state is starting to look at a new normal for funding its parks. And one thing it’s considering is changing the day use formula from what is basically a parking fee to an entrance fee. A report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office makes it clear that the scofflaw issue is one factor:

Moving away from parking fees to entrance fees can help address the challenge of visitors legally avoiding paying parking fees by parking on roads outside of a park and walking into the park for free. We estimate that charging an eighth of the people that currently visit day–use parks for free an entrance fee would increase revenues by the low tens of millions of dollars annually.

Take A Pass

Here in Santa Cruz County, most of the day use fees for the state parks are $8-$10. Statewide prices range from $4 to $15. The Department of Parks and Recreation does offer annual passes for purchase. The cost of the passes went up in March 2012, somewhat significantly. The Golden Poppy pass, which covers almost all parks in Santa Cruz County, with the exception of Lighthouse Field and Twin Lakes Beach, was $90; now it’s $125. A list of parks that accept the Golden Poppy pass is here.

The Vehicle Day Use Annual Pass—accepted at all parks throughout the state—runs $195.

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