The Ruckelshaus Center

Recreation Fees in Washington

Project Background & Purpose

From the Columbia River to the 49th Parallel, and the Pacific Ocean to the Palouse, land ownership and management in Washington state is a patchwork of federal, tribal, state, local (including city, county, and public utilities), and private entities. Nearly 40% of the state (~20 million acres) is managed by nine agencies (six federal and three state). In recent decades, these agencies have instituted various user-based fees to help offset decreases in state and federal allocations while striving to manage trails and other facilities under pressure from increasing participation in outdoor recreation.

Currently, more than 20 unique recreation passes and permits are available in Washington (including state and federal, daily and annual). Although sometimes perceived as such, these passes and permits are not necessarily parking permits. Some passes grant “motor vehicle access,” while others must only be displayed at authorized fee sites or in association with specific activities. Some agencies can charge access or entrance fees, others may not. This process uses the term “passes” or “recreation fees” to refer to the many passes and permits that have very specific meanings to the agency with which the pass or permit is affiliated. The pass(es) that may be required depend on the agency, trailhead, season, activity, mode of access, and whether or not an individual qualifies for a free/reduced fee program. These passes, depending on the agency, come in the form of a review mirror “hang tag,” window cling, sticker, or plastic card that may be linked to a specific individual, household, or up to two license plates. Specific activities and/or areas may require additional fees or permits (e.g. backcountry hiking permits, hunting/fishing licenses, ORV tabs, etc.). The myriad of pass permutations results in public land users who are uncertain about what pass is needed where (and when, and why).

To begin addressing these challenges, in 2016, the Washington State Legislature directed the WA State Parks and Recreation Commission, in partnership with the WA Department of Natural Resources and the WA Department of Fish and Wildlife, to work with the Ruckelshaus Center to “coordinate a process to develop options and recommendations to improve consistency, equity, and simplicity in recreational access fee systems while accounting for the fiscal health and stability of public land management.” The legislation also requested exploration of the potential for “federal and state permit fee coordination,” including a “single pass to provide access to state and federal lands” and a “comprehensive and consistent approach to recreational fee discounts and exemptions.”


This figure depicts work coordinated by the Ruckelshaus Center, including key dates and targets. For the Situation Assessment of Recreation Access Fee Systems in Washington State, the Center interviewed more than 60 individuals, representing state and federal agencies, tribes, outdoor recreation users, pass vendors, and other interested parties. Their input guided the roles and tasks of a Leadership Team and two working groups. Over the past several months, participants have shared their perspectives, identified information needs, and developed work products. The work groups developed, and Leadership Team refined, four scenarios for further analysis and consideration. To view details on each of the scenarios, see the mid-project update.

Next Steps

The Leadership Team and work group(s) will meet periodically throughout the fall to incorporate additional research, survey data, and public input to refine the scenarios, and ultimately develop final options and recommendations for the Legislature and agencies. If you or your organization has questions or suggestions that might merit consideration, or if you would like to learn more, contact Molly Stenovec, Project Manager, at or (206) 219-2411.

Related Reports


For more information, contact:

Molly Stenovec
Ruckelshaus Center
Project Manager
(206) 219-2411


The Ruckelshaus Center, PO Box 646248, Pullman WA 99164-6248, (509) 335-2937, Contact Us

901 Fifth Avenue, Suite 2900, Seattle, WA 98164, (206) 428-3021
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