For Christmas, state parks handed out pink slips instead of presents — cutting 16 full-time permanent construction and maintenance staff and 66 full-time rangers from the payroll. The rangers will be given options for seasonal employment, with the aim of keeping staffing in parks from May through September similar to current year-round levels.
“It’s the heavier maintenance that happens in the winter that we’re going to be light on in order to keep staffing there for visitors,” said Parks Communications Specialist Virginia Painter. “Over time that will show, and we know it’s not sustainable, but this is something we have to do in order to keep services there for visitors.”
Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan is losing two full-time positions — Ranger William Hoppe and Ken Schilling, in charge of construction and maintenance — effective Jan. 31.
Ranger Ted Schlund, San Juan area manager, will be responsible for 17 Marine Parks.
“I’m heartbroken about what’s happening with the people close to me and the uncertainty,” Schlund said.
A ranger position and one maintenance position have also been cut at Moran State Park on Orcas Island.
Officials from Spencer Spit State Park on Lopez could not be reached before story deadline.
The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission made a decision to reduce staff rather than close the parks, in part because closed doors will not make money.
The parks department is expected to become fully self-sustaining state-wide by July 2013, and last summer’s state’s biennial budget provided just a fraction of its previous budget as “bridge funding.” Now that $17.3 million has been slashed by another $11 million.
The Discover Pass that took effect last July has to date fallen far shy of its projected revenue of $65 million within two years. The pass has brought in just $7.2 million in its first four months.
“The longer the agency waits to make reductions, the deeper the cuts will be,” read the commissions’ agenda notes. “Each month delay would mean approximately $750,000 a month in additional cuts.”
Painter says Parks officials hope the financial situation will improve over time.
“Common sense tells you it takes time for people to learn about and participate in something like [the Discover Pass now funding the parks],” she said. “The parks system is exploring other ways of earning revenue over time.”
A statewide total of nine additional park aides will be added as extra hands at lower wages, assisting the park rangers with tasks from assisting and directing visitors to cleaning and maintenance.
A typical day for a ranger in Washington could bring just about anything. Once, while working at a park in eastern Washington, Hoppe started the morning by cleaning the toilets, and then issued a citation for people drinking alcohol. In the afternoon, he talked to a school group about the local marmot population. As night fell, he assisted a search and rescue team dig someone out of a rockslide.
“There’s just so many different things for any day,” said Hoppe, who often juggles administration, law enforcement, interpretation and enforcement and collection of the new parking pass.
For the last 10 years, Schlund has worked side by side with Hoppe, and for the last three years they have been neighbors in the ranger housing at Lime Kiln.
The two joke that the honeymoon is over after so many years, but Schlund quickly adds, “Hoppe is not only an excellent ranger, but a good neighbor and I consider him my friend.”
Instead of taking a seasonal job, Hoppe has chosen to apply for a full-time position at another park in Washington state, which has yet to be determined.
“I’m heartbroken too, since 1993 I have helped establish the park — getting the interpretive center off the ground, the loop trail, acquired the actual Lime Kiln and beachfront property,” Hoppe said. “I’ve come to enjoy it, but I just don’t have that option anymore.”
And despite the work he’s done, he’s says there is so much more to do.
Schilling echoes Hoppe as he points to a list of items that need to be done, a list that won’t be completed in the next two weeks.
He was hired two years ago for his expertise in construction and maintenance, and has been in charge many jobs including fixing the compostable toilet, maintaining three boats, three pickups, a tractor and various tools.
He’s not just upset that he’s losing his job and that he has a wife and 5-year-old to take care of; he’s upset that a position is eliminated when there is still work to be done.
He said in a few weeks he’ll either have a new job or be unemployed and living in his mom’s garage.
The park will have aides, two five-month positions, one three-month position and another two-month position. But Schilling said aides often do not have the expertise to replace current positions.
Lime Kiln also usually has about 20 volunteers in various jobs like running the interpretation center, working as docents, and doing odd jobs.
“Volunteers are vital to our operations,” Schlud said.
But he doesn’t see much hope for the park to recover until the economy improves.
“The only way we could make money is to sell the product that we have and that is the great outdoors,” Schlund said.
Schilling said that there are ways to generate money like providing campsites, but that the bureaucracy and paperwork won’t allow new creative ideas.
“We need the executive leadership team of the state parks to put their teeth into this, so that we can stand on our own feet,” Schilling said.
He added that the press releases from headquarters don’t paint an accurate picture, that when they replace full time positions with seasonal work it doesn’t add up. You can’t compare a five-month job with a 12-month full time job, he said.
Schlund said he knew the cuts would be coming, and understands that cuts have to be made, but he is concerned that Lime Kiln will be running like a business rather then a park.
For Schlund, the park represents a social service and emotional respite, an escape, and what people gain from the park can’t be measured by dollars and cents.
In his eyes, the reduction of staff could result in more graffiti, other vandalism and decay and decline of buildings and resources.
“I won’t have the time to keep the park up to the levels of beautification is deserves,” Schlund said.
The cuts, he said, “are going to have a negative impact.”