As Washington’s storied parks prepare for their 100th birthday next year, celebratory sentiment has been tempered by a fundamental question: What kind of system can this cash-strapped state afford?

With many areas of state government reeling from budget cuts, lawmakers in Olympia have given Washington’s parks system an unprecedented mandate to begin operating with no state funding beginning in 2013, the Seattle Times reported.

It has been a rough transition. The linchpin in this new model is the Discover Pass, a $30 annual or $10 daily parking permit needed to access parks and other state lands. But a year after taking effect, the pass has brought in less than half of the $32 million expected.

Now the parks system is under mounting pressure to move toward a new, self-funding model that can keep all its 117 parks and properties open.

“We are no longer getting a free check from the government,” said Don Hoch, director of state parks. “We are now in competition. We have to provide people a service (users) want to come for in order to pay our bills.”

The idea is for the park system to operate more like a business, but that is new ground for a system more accustomed to park preservation than collecting user data and mounting marketing campaigns.

Hoch said the parks must strike a delicate balance between attracting younger users with new amenities like Wi-Fi, developing new revenue streams and determining the level of service the parks can afford to offer.

“At no time in our 100-year history have we been in a position like this, where we have to make so many tough decisions,” said Hoch.

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