Dozens of state parks in Washington could close temporarily because of budget cutbacks, and parks around the country face similar woes

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As Washington state park officials wrestle with a budget cut of up to $23 million over the next two years, they’re considering temporarily closing — or permanently getting rid of — dozens of state parks.

On the list are parks ranging from Mount Spokane State Park to Saint Edward State Park on the shore of Lake Washington in Kenmore.

The state Parks and Recreation Commission will meet today in Olympia to try to figure out what criteria to use, which could include simply prioritizing closures by a park’s number of visitors. Other parks could be transferred to city or county control. A spokeswoman for the state parks commission stressed that no decision had been made on which parks to close, and probably wouldn’t be until lawmakers pass a budget this spring. Hearings would be held in March and April.

As an example of one way to prioritize parks, commissioners have been given a list of more than 30 parks, ranked by visitation, where closure would save the state at least $150,000 a year.

“This is just data,” said spokeswoman Virginia Painter. “We’ll have to see if it’s even possible to mothball these.”

The list ranges from Puget Sound’s Jarrell Cove, a marine camping park on Harstine Island with about 36,000 visitors a year, to Mount Spokane, with about 485,000 visitors a year and Saint Edward State Park, with 715,000.

In December, Gov. Christine Gregoire proposed a 10 percent budget cut to Parks and Recreation. That means shaving about $10 million over the next two years. The agency drew up plans to cut staff, postpone equipment purchases and to try to get rid of 13 state parks.

Those parks, ideally, would be given to local cities or counties to take care of. Two other parks, yet to be determined, would be closed.

With the state’s budget picture worsening, lawmakers have now asked Parks and Recreation how it would deal with a 23 percent budget cut.

Instead of getting rid of more parks, the agency is suggesting mothballing them. Restrooms and gates would be locked. Services and routine maintenance would be halted. The public could still walk into the parks and use them during the day.

“We won’t cite people for being on the land,” said Painter.

To save the requested $23 million, the agency says, it would have to temporarily close 20 to 36 parks, in addition to the 15 already slated for transfer or closure. A final version of that list will likely be given to state lawmakers next week, once the commission figures out how to prioritize the parks.

All those closures would be temporary, Painter said.

“But how temporary?” she continued.

“No one knows.”

At public hearings so far, reaction has been overwhelming against the first round of proposed transfers and closures.

“It’s going to be a tough one,” Painter said of the decision. “The really hard part is that nobody wants to do any of this. We know the public is connected to special places.”

The state has 121 parks, including islands, trails, beaches and campgrounds.

Other states’ parks

Other states also are facing budget cuts to state parks because of the economic crisis, and dealing with them in various ways.

• Idaho can no longer afford the $300,000 it spent last year on Old Mission State Park, home of the 155-year-old Cataldo Mission. It hopes the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, which owns the site, or concerned nearby community members can pony up.

• Hawaii is at a crossroads with a park system sorely in need of repair. The state will either close as many as five state parks or pour $240 million into a “Recreational Renaissance,” which would upgrade parks, harbors, beaches and piers crumbling into the ocean.

• Three parks in Arizona have already been closed temporarily and eight more face potential temporary closure. Grants there that funded law enforcement patrols on the Colorado River are being suspended and canceled.

• Nevada could close as many as 10 of its 25 state parks seasonally, and lock up two sites that already have access problems.

• Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped California’s plans to close 48 parks after outraging environmentalists, some residents and politicians, deciding instead to increase fees slightly.

• Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn just reopened seven parks that his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, had closed. But 12 historic sites around the state remain shuttered. They include a re-creation of the farmstead where Lincoln’s parents lived after moving to Illinois, the Vandalia Statehouse where he started as a state legislator and the Dana-Thomas House, built by Frank Lloyd Wright more than 100 years ago.

• Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped California’s plans to close 48 parks after outraging environmentalists, some residents and politicians, deciding instead to increase fees slightly.

• Some states, like Ohio, plan to save cash by shutting down certain destinations for just a week. It will close 14 historic sites starting March 28, a furlough sparing $191,000.

Material from the The Spokesman-Review, Associated Press and Seattle Times staffer Kristin Jackson is included in this report.