Sunday, January 31, 2016

Musings: Advertisements in State Parks

Insert your ad here?

While visiting Rasar State Park recently, my husband and I walked past many empty frames like the one above. Normally, we'd expect to find some kind of informational poster there, perhaps pointing out some interesting plant life or historical tidbits about the scenery in front of us. I expect that those frames were empty because the displays were being updated. Or perhaps Rasar State Park has adopted more of a philosophical, existential "make your own nature interpretation" approach, which is also great! But what if those frames held something altogether unrelated to the state park's history, flora or fauna? What if it displayed an advertisement for the newest gotta-have-it cell phone, or discount car insurance, or the latest in outdoor gear and fashion?

This sounds odd, but it could become reality. A recent KOMO news story brought to my attention a proposal that might adversely affect future visits to my favorite Washington State Parks. The Washington State Parks Commission is considering a proposal to allow advertising in restrooms at and trailheads in state parks.

Being bombarded by advertisements in a place you purposely visit to escape from those very things is an entirely unwelcome possibility. There is a reason we head for the sanctuary of the forest, the beach, or the mountains rather than the shopping mall when we're in need of rest, restoration, and a few hours of peace. We want to escape from the constant pressure to buy things and the false sense of need planted in our minds by the constant hum of commercialism that surrounds us all day long through the television, radio, internet, magazines, and billboards. We want to escape to nature, where we feel that we already have all we need, and where all that's asked of us is to be present, to observe and listen and to tread lightly.

State parks just don't seem to fit in as a medium for advertising. And while a few advertisements at the trailhead or in the restrooms really don't sound like too much of an intrusion, there's always the concern that those few advertisements could multiply and expand. Will we ever get to the point where there are billboards alongside the trail? Motion-activated popup advertisements dropping from the bigleaf maple branches overhead or springing from a tangle of salmonberry in front of us? Will those lovely informational plaques found along some trails be replaced by television screens that force you to watch a 30-second advertisement before it will tell you about that giant old tree right in front of you?

I'm not saying that any of these things are in the Washington State Parks Commission's proposal (they're not!), but the mind does wander to those possibilities once the door is opened to advertising in state parks. One can't help but worry that this would be the start of a very slippery slope that will end up ruining our favorite natural spaces.

Then on the other hand, there's the less-concerned approach voiced by one of the park-goers in the KOMO news story. Many of us don't read or pay attention to the signs or information kiosks anyway. I know that when I visit Saint Edward State Park, I breeze right past those things and make a beeline for my favorite trail. And who cares about an ad posted on the door of a bathroom stall? Those are easy enough to ignore. Very true.

But there's just the principal of the thing that bothers me: I don't want to be advertised to at state parks. I don't want corporations to think they can reach me there. When I am in a state park, I am unavailable. I am a consumer of nothing but nature.

Whether or not you're alarmed by the thought of advertisements in these places, the underlying issue remains that our state parks are woefully underfunded. The parks were once 80% publicly funded, and that has now fallen to a paltry 25%. While we could sit here and argue about government spending and wasted money and taxes, I'd rather not get into that here. Call your representatives. Tell them state parks are important to us all and need to be funded.

Those of us who cherish and regularly visit the parks also have a responsibility to do our part. Buy your Discover Pass. Donate to the Washington State Parks Foundation. And you know that little box that we all decline to select when renewing our vehicle tabs each year... the box that automatically adds a suggested $5 WA State Parks donation to our vehicle registration fees? How about we don't uncheck that box? I've bravely added the $5 donation to my renewal fees for the past several years, and I haven't missed that five bucks. Although it's tempting to try and save some money, each year I'm reminded of the soaring verdant beauty of my maple cathedral at Saint Edward State Park, of the deep and quiet old growth at Rockport State Park, of the cold breezes sweeping across the top of Cedar Butte in Ollalie State Park, and I gladly submit my donation. That's what nature does to us. That's the power of wonder and the connection that comes with visiting truly unique and beautiful state parks, which we're so fortunate to have in Washington.

Now let's put that connection to work and stand up for the places we love. And while you're at it, bring a friend along with you!

My unofficially-named Maple Cathedral along the South Canyon Trail at Saint Edward State Park


  1. Amen! Excellent post. Yes, advertising is getting out of control. Have my new Discover Pass, do the $5 donation. I don't know, the way our local and federal governments run seems to be getting messier and more tangled. Why so much lower percentage of funding - that 55% drop? I'm glad to hear your voice on this and many other issues. And yes, I want to be unplugged and wifi-free at a park! I'm glad I lose cell coverage in the gully at Carkeek, etc. Anyway....thanks again for another thoughtful post.

    1. I need to do some more research to find out why there was such a huge drop in public funding for State Parks. It might be related to the economic recession circa 2009, but I don't know for sure. A 55% decrease is significant, though!

      There was a part of me that was thinking it might be a bit fussy to complain about advertisements being posted at trailheads and in restrooms at state parks... but my immediate reaction of "I don't like that idea!" is still strong, so I had to write about it. We all need to stand up for these places that we love, and support them as we're able!